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Councillor wants city to address homelessness

Whitehorse is not in the business of providing social housing. But it should be, says Betty Irwin. The city councillor doesn't understand why affordable housing is not part of Whitehorse's mandate.

Whitehorse is not in the business of providing social housing.

But it should be, says Betty Irwin.

The city councillor doesn’t understand why affordable housing is not part of Whitehorse’s mandate.

“We are in the business of taking care of our citizens,” said Irwin.

“So shouldn’t this be part of it?”

Social housing has been the responsibility of the territorial government.

“But just because the city has never been involved with social housing doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” said Irwin.

The city of Yellowknife has a fulltime homelessness co-ordinator.

In the six years Dayle Hernblad has been on the job, she’s overseen the construction of a youth shelter, a 32-unit transition home for men, a day shelter and the continued maintenance of a 44-bed shelter, while a new 22-unit supported-living complex for women is in the works.

This gives Yellowknife - population 18,700 - more than 90 shelter beds.

Whitehorse - population 26,400 - has 14.

The city of Juneau, Alaska, also employs an affordable housing co-ordinator.

Scott Ciambor’s job is to provide guidance to the city on housing issues.

So far, this has involved working on everything from homelessness and mental-health issues to land allocation and rent-to-own properties.

Ciambor also co-ordinates meetings between upwards of 30 local organizations involved in Juneau’s homelessness and housing initiative, including police, hospital staff, city officials, state employees, realtors, developers, doctors, school board members, mental-health workers, lawyers, church groups and local nonprofits.

The city of Whitehorse doesn’t need a homelessness co-ordinator, said Coun. Florence Roberts.

The territorial government has Yukon Housing, she said.

“And we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”

The city gives tax breaks to Habitat for Humanity’s affordable housing projects, said Roberts. “And we create incentive programs and try to make land available.

“We do what we can.”

But we could do more, said Irwin.

“I know the city offers tax breaks and gives leeway to development agreements to make them more viable,” she said.

“But it’s not enough.”

Whitehorse is trying to bring as much land as possible to market, said city manager Dennis Shewfelt.

But when it comes to dealing with affordable housing, Yukon Housing is the primary agent, he said. “The city has never looked at anything along these lines.

“We’re not set up to act as a landlord.”

The city does work closely with Yukon Housing when it comes to plans and zoning, he added.

And Shewfelt sits on an anti-poverty working group, he said.

The city doesn’t need a homelessness co-ordinator position, because council has enough contact with the public, added Roberts.

The public can make presentations to council, she said.

“We are very open and accountable - maybe more so than Yellowknife.

“So we don’t need this kind of position.

“We are there if you need us.”

Council makes decisions about where the money goes, said Shewfelt.

And the city is “hard-pressed to meet its current needs without branching out into other areas we’re not involved in,” he said.

“It all comes down to dollars.”

Whitehorse council recently gave Mt. Sima’s Great Northern Ski Society a $1.6-million grant to help build its new chairlift.

“I voted against giving money toward the ski lift,” said Irwin. “Because we have so many more pressing needs.

“I couldn’t help but think that money would have gone a long way if we’d donated that much to the food bank,” she said.

“We have a responsibility to take care of our citizens.

“And we have a lot of poverty and homelessness here.”

Last year, Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition spent more than 1,000 volunteer hours drafting a proposal to build a 20-room supported apartment complex downtown for the city’s hardest to house.

By March, the housing coalition had found land, obtained zoning approval, recruited an architect who volunteered time and even had a builder lined up.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation was on board, and gave the group $10,000 in seed funding.

And the coalition had backing from several banks.

All it needed was $900,000 from Health and Social Services to get the ball rolling and start breaking ground.

But that money never materialized, even though the Yukon Party government had roughly $18 million in affordable housing money sitting unused in the bank.

“I couldn’t believe Northern City’s proposal fell by the wayside,” said Irwin.

“I was horrified by that.”

Instead of helping buy a new chairlift, council could have supported Northern City, she said.

The city committed to supporting Mt. Sima, said Roberts.

“We are the property owner there, so we are protecting our asset.

“And if we can get it over the hump, we can have a successful Arctic Winter Games.”

But affordable housing is a whole different story, she said.

“It’s not our mandate.

“We do what we can with land incentives.

“But we don’t want to poke our nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“It’s easy to push this responsibility off on someone else, and say we’ve never been involved in affordable housing,” said Irwin.

“But just because it’s never been done before, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be open to new ways of thinking.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at