Debating homelessness on the Yukon Party’s terms

The Yukon Party government wants to redo last week's homelessness debate. On Monday, backbencher Steve Nordick proposed a motion that calls on the territory to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse. It's to be debated today.

The Yukon Party government wants to redo last week’s homelessness debate.

On Monday, backbencher Steve Nordick proposed a motion that calls on the territory to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse. It’s to be debated today.

This is a remarkable turnaround from last week, when the government shot down a Liberal motion that called on the territory to support a plan to help Whitehorse’s hardest to house.

Yukon Party members used the time to brag about past accomplishments and mock the opposition parties. Both the NDP and Liberals protested that the government should back the measure, to no avail.

Instead, the government watered down the motion so that it no longer meant anything and then used its majority to pass it.

Last week’s debate was supposed to focus on a project, put forward by a coalition of nonprofits, that offers a solution to helping Whitehorse’s homeless alcoholics.

The plan in question would give them a place to live – and drink.

It’s controversial. But, by taking these people off the circuit between the drunk tank, emergency room and temporary shelter, governments elsewhere have found they save money and lives.

The approach is called “housing first.” It challenges the conventional wisdom that many homeless people choose to sleep on the street, and that quitting drinking is primarily a matter of willpower. It turns out that coping with alcoholism and its attendant ills is a lot easier with a roof over your head.

The coalition’s supportive housing project would have 20 units. It would cost $1.8 million.

Nonprofits would pay half of that amount with grants being doled out by the Yukon Housing Corporation on behalf of Ottawa. They would also need Health and Social Services to contribute $250,000 annually to staff the facility.

It remains unclear what exactly government ministers will debate today. The motion calls on the territory to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse, but it already has one, in the form of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter.

But shelter’s not housing. Men who stay at the Salvation Army’s shelter on a regular basis must clear out their belongings each morning. And they have no guarantee of a bed the next night.

The coalition proposal would offer a more permanent solution. But that means it’s not really a shelter – properly speaking, it’s supportive housing.

Similarly, youth in Whitehorse may find temporary digs, through four beds offered by the territory, but there is no longer-term shelter for them, either.

Two years ago, the Youth of Today Society bought an old hostel, which it calls Angel’s Nest, with the hope of turning it into a permanent youth shelter. But the territory balked at the proposal.

Kaushee’s Place offers housing for up to 30 days to women fleeing violent spouses. But, once that period’s up, most clients are out of luck.

Applicants for longer-term housing currently face long waits. But more supply should open up by the end of the year, when a 30-unit affordable housing complex reserved for single-parent families opens in Riverdale. That project is set to cost $10.5 million.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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