By the river, with nowhere else to go

On Wednesday afternoon along the Whitehorse waterfront, a man and woman bump shoulders as they stumble forward down the paved path that runs alongside the Yukon River.

On Wednesday afternoon along the Whitehorse waterfront, a man and woman bump shoulders as they stumble forward down the paved path that runs alongside the Yukon River, their words slurred and steps unsteady. Tourists awkwardly pass by on foot, others on bicycles and skateboards.

Further up the path, a group of men sit in the shade of trees, cans of Kokanee glinting in the afternoon sun. Garbage is strewn around the open space: beer boxes, empty cigarette packs, coffee cups. When asked why they are there, the response is quick and gruff and true: there’s nowhere else to go.

Just up from the wharf, at the White Pass and Yukon Route building, Sharon Riordan, office manager, looks out the office window and down river.

Like many businesses along the water, she’s noticed an increase in those loitering and drinking along the river’s edge.

“It’s definitely picked up since they built it up,” she says, motioning to the large wooden wharf behind the building.

“It’s not the most attractive thing for tourists,” she says of the groups of people that drift up and down the path. “There’s a lot of foul language. It’s not very comfortable.”

The city has built up the waterfront in recent years. The summer foot traffic is constant, and so are the opportunities for business.

In 2011, the wharf was installed at the price tag of $3 million. Before that, the city re-named First Avenue, reverting it back to Front Street under the recommendation of local businesses.

Landscape work followed, and funding secured through the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund. It became, and still is, an attractive feature for those looking to go for a jog, or go shopping – or to have a drink.

Those who drift along the waterfront, homeless or addicted, marginalized and vulnerable, weren’t privy to the development. For them, the waterfront is a gathering point.

New rules have been discussed: steeper fines, tougher enforcement, stricter trespassing laws. These ideas may push the group around into others spots, but it won’t address the root of the problem, says Kristina Craig, co-ordinator for the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

She’s heard the waterfront complaints before.

“We know that everybody wants to have a safe and healthy community,” she says. “We also know there is lack of affordable, appropriate and safe housing for people that might need it, and there’s also a lack of appropriate and safe programming for folks. We’re dealing with the emergency acute stuff – people can find food and they can find shelter, neither of which may be the best, but they can find those things – but there’s nothing beyond that.”

Whitehorse’s bylaw department has heard the complaints before, as well, from the public and from the business community.

Dave Pruden, the bylaw services manager, says their job is to provide eyes and ears on the ground.

There are four staff that mainly contribute to that task. That includes three meter attendees, who ride their bikes into town from the bylaw services building on Two Mile Hill and along the waterfront trail.

If they observe anything suspicious, they call the RCMP.

There’s also one employee on the city’s trails, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres around the city. The Yukon River Trail and Millennium Trial, where most complaints arise, are part of that patrol.

Bylaw has been working on removing underbrush in the area – cutting down on the places left to hide.

“The reasons why we have this population are complex,” says Craig. “Every single person that’s down by the waterfront has a different story and has different needs. We have a tendency to lump everyone together and say, ‘There’s more of them’ or, ‘More people are drinking,’ but that doesn’t really speak to the issue at all.”

What would help, says Craig, are opportunities for short-term work, a drop-in gender specific space with qualified staff, a managed alcohol program, and a plan to end homelessness that involves the entire community: government, businesses, front-line workers and the homeless themselves.

“In my opinion, the business community should be advocating for supports,” says Kate Mechan, a front-line worker who received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award for her work with the Boys and Girls Club and the Northern Cities Supportive Housing Coalition.

“Ticketing people, arresting them, is an extremely costly way of dealing with this issue.”

“We need a concrete plan with timelines,” says Craig. “And who is responsible to make some changes to ensure people have what they need? Until we do that, we’re going to have these ad hoc responses, which may be punitive, which may hurt more than help.”

Most important, however, is to bring on-side troubled residents struggling with addictions.

“If they choose to do so, that’s the other piece,” says Craig. “If and when they choose to do so.”

In the meantime, many working towards sobriety continue to encounter a lack of programming and work opportunities – options that would help them stay sober and be part of a different community.

“We sort of put people in detox and they come out, and they may not have a place to live. So they go to the shelter and they find a community, and that community may not be in the same place they are at that time,” says Craig. “That makes it very hard for people make change.”

Three times a year at the Old Firehall, Whitehorse Connects provides an opportunity for those who are homeless, living in poverty or among the working poor to get together in a safe, welcoming environment.

They receive food, clothing, foot care, hair cuts and immunizations. Beyond that, though, it gives people a space to connect with each other and meet new people.

“People really like those events,” says Craig. “It’s an opportunity for folks just to come and sit and be, but we’re only able to offer three of those events a year. There are very few places like that, and until we have those spaces, people are going to be loitering and they are going to hanging out in the waterfront.”

Mechan says Whitehorse is in desperate need for a low-barrier drop-in space, somewhere safe for people to hang out. “It’s not just about drinking,” she says. “It’s also about the desire and human need to connect, be around friends and socialize.

Both Craig and Mechan agree that traditional, punitive responses like heightened security won’t help the problems along the waterfront.

“It’s not going to do anything except move people around,” says Craig. “All that means is the outreach van needs to figure out a different route to find and support those people.

“Whether they are youth, or homeless, or people with addictions, or mental health issues, or brain injuries or FASD, they are still people and we need to figure how to provide housing, supports, food and employment options that will work for them, and they need to be part of figuring out that piece as well, because, ultimately, they know best.”

Contact Sam Riches at