Yukon’s Challenge Disability Resource Group has released its dream plan for a 60-unit apartment building that would include supportive housing.
They say the plan is “shovel ready” if they can get enough support to make it happen.
If it were to materialize, the building would become the first large housing complex in the territory to use a “housing first” model.
Housing first policies run on the belief that people need a safe place to live before they can start thinking about clearing other hurdles in their lives. It’s different from other supportive living in the territory in that people aren’t required to remain sober in order to qualify.
“It’s hard to develop a relationship with anybody when you’re homeless, when you’re just trying to find a safe place to sleep or a meal and that’s your focus,” said Challenge’s executive director Jillian Hardie.
“So how do you move on to the next step of sobriety when you don’t have those two basics?”
Hardie said the building would offer supportive living rental apartments, where staff are on hand to help residents. It would also include apartments that don’t come with support and are rented to the general public.
The idea is to create a community, she said.
Challenge already runs a five-bed supportive living building for adults with developmental disabilities and a 10-bed transition home for people with mental illnesses.
It also manages a cafe and a wood shop, both employing people with disabilities, and runs various programs to help Yukoners find jobs.
Hardie estimates 25 per cent or more of Challenge’s clients are homeless or hard to house.
Some couch surf, or spend their summers living at a local campground, or are forced to live long-term in downtown Whitehorse hotels.
“People are living on couches, living in people’s basements or their garden sheds and not with phones,” said Challenge board member Mark Browning. “If we have work we can’t just call them up. Here we can put it on a board, we know that they’re around, we can plan for things.”
Hardie said there are people who may manage well when they are involved in the structure of the justice system but who can struggle when those supports go away.
“And it’s not because of an attitude, it’s because they’ve gone into an environment that’s no longer safe,” she said.
“I’m not getting a good sleep, I’m not eating well, I’m around other people who may be drinking and using or abusing, and I’m vulnerable again. It’s just existing day to day.”
Browning and Hardie argue this type of housing can actually save money because it keeps people out of places like the jail or the hospital.
In 2012 Challenge’s Bridges Cafe was forced to shut down for four months after losing the contract to work out of the Frank Slim Building in Shipyards Park.
Hardie said Challenge heard anecdotally that afterward the amount of hospital visits for its mental health clients went up.
“They didn’t have that solid ground of employment that contributes to self worth, and independence, and self-sufficiency, and all of that,” she said.
The idea of some sort of supportive living building have been in the works at Challenge since 2010, Browning said.
A version of the idea was submitted to try and get cash from the Northern Housing Trust when the Yukon government had plans to spend the money on affordable rentals. The government cancelled those plans in 2014.
“We saw the election coming, we needed this (current) building replaced or fixed up and we thought let’s re-release it,” he said.
Challenge’s current office on Front Street, a former mechanics shop built in the ’70s, is at the end of its life, Hardie said. A recent building assessment found that fixing it up to meet current code requirements would cost more than it’s worth.
Challenge has posted an architect’s design for its proposed new building on Facebook.
The main floor would contain a new office, a new Bridges Cafe, two commercial units that could be leased, a commercial kitchen for training and education and a rental boardroom.
To build the apartment building, Challenge would have to sell its current building and move. Bylaws don’t allow for a waterfront building that big.
The organization has its eye on a vacant Motorways lot owned by the City of Whitehorse near the current Greyhound station.
Alternatively they could knock down the current office and build something new on the same spot. In that case the building could only be four storeys tall and include 36 units.
Challenge knows how much a building is expected to cost but is not making that information public yet.
Hardie said it would cost less than the $18 million spent on the Sarah Steele alcohol and drug services building.
Browning said he wants whatever party forms the next government to “(recognize) that this building will more than pay for itself. Not only with the money coming in from the residents but also what it gives back to the community.
“I don’t think of this as a big expense, it’s an investment in our community.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org