Fixing homelessness isn’t a contest is it?

It's been four months since a group of nonprofits unveiled a plan to help Whitehorse's homeless, hardcore alcoholics. The Yukon Party government has yet to support the idea. Instead, it appears to be working on a rival scheme.

It’s been four months since a group of nonprofits unveiled a plan to help Whitehorse’s homeless, hardcore alcoholics.

The Yukon Party government has yet to support the idea.

Instead, it appears to be working on a rival scheme.

Details are sketchy, but it looks as if the government wants to build a new homeless shelter and detoxification centre in downtown Whitehorse.

That could be bad news for the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition’s plans to offer permanent digs for homeless alcoholics who are now stuck on a circuit between the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter, the drunk tank and the emergency room.

But it needn’t be.

“This is not a competition,” said Kate Mechan, who helped develop the coalition’s proposal. She argues that both projects would service distinct needs, and that supportive housing would be “a complement to a shelter.”

The coalition wants to give Whitehorse’s hardest to house a place to live – and drink. It’s a controversial approach that’s bound to attract criticism, which may explain why the government has yet to endorse the idea.

It’s called Housing First. And 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.

In Seattle, a similar project was dubbed “Bunks for Drunks” by critics who wondered why the state should subsidize destructive behaviour.

But Seattle now estimates it saves $4 million annually by helping some of the city’s hardest-to-house clients.

The facility also means there are fewer homeless alcoholics cadging for change downtown, passing out in parks and urinating in alleys.

And the project appears to improve the health of its clients. Many drink less. Some quit the bottle entirely.

As Health Minister Glenn Hart has acknowledged, a shelter is not a home. But for about 20 of Whitehorse’s homeless, hardcore alcoholics, the Salvation Army shelter is the only place that will take them.

“The reality is, some of these folks will never meet the status quo,” said Mechan. “That doesn’t mean they’re undeserving of a home.”

The coalition’s 20-unit facility would resemble a hotel, with a central entrance to allow staff to keep tabs on guests and clients. Each client would have a small bedroom with an attached kitchenette and bathroom.

Unlike a hotel, the ground floor would include office space for addictions counsellors, visiting nurses and other frontline workers, as well as a communal kitchen and other common spaces.

Drinking would not be allowed in much of the building. But what clients do in their rooms is their own business, provided they don’t fight.

The Yukon Party government’s position on all this largely remains a mystery, due to the mixed signals it’s sent out.

When both opposition parties backed a motion in October that called on the government to work with the coalition to build its project, Yukon Party members changed the subject.

They bragged about past achievements, heaped blame on the opposition parties, and then watered down the motion so that it no longer meant anything and used their majority to pass it.

This prompted an angry backlash from Yukoners. Several days later, the government put forward its own motion, calling on the territory to build a homeless shelter.

At the time, Hart told the News he was still considering the coalition’s plans. But he said it would be premature to make any decision before receiving two reports.

One is a study of the number of homeless people in Whitehorse. In late October, health officials estimated it would be ready in eight weeks – which is now. Pat Living, a Health spokesperson, said yesterday the report would be released “relatively soon.”

The other report is being prepared by a task force that’s looking at ways to help hardcore alcoholics. It’s due at the end of December.

Hart insists the government is sticking to an “evidence-based” approach for tackling homelessness. But it may also have philosophical reservations about funding a Housing First Project.

After all, one of the reasons why the Youth of Today Society’s Angel’s Nest shelter never received government support was that it planned to offer unconditional help to street youth.

This concerned Hart, who wanted to ensure that shelter would be conditional on youth participating in government programs.

Another possible objection to the coalition plan is that it doesn’t leave a lot for the government to claim credit for. The coalition already has a proposed site, design plans and a building team lined up.

And there’s the practical concern about how much it would cost.

The building itself is expected to cost $1.8 million – a cut-rate, largely thanks to volunteer labour on the part of the architect and building team.

Half of that money is to be obtained from the Yukon Housing Corporation, which is administering federal affordable housing money. The remainder would be leveraged from a bank once government funding is secured.

Clients’ shelter allowances should pay the building’s maintenance costs. But the territory would need to help pay staff for the project to succeed.

Initial plans called for the territory to pay $250,000 to help staff the facility. Those expected costs have grown to $400,000, as Health officials have helped the coalition beef-up its business plan.

That’s not chump change for the government, but the coalition still expects the territory would ultimately save money by funding their plan, said Laird Herbert, another coalition member.

The housing corporation has until the end of the fiscal year, in April, to dole out these funds. But it won’t do so unless the Health department commits to pay for staffing.

And, so far, that hasn’t happened.

That could hold up the coalition’s ambitious timeline. They hope to see construction start in April, and have tenants move in by this time next year.

The coalition’s steering committee includes members of Blood Ties Four Directions, Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, Many Rivers Counselling, Yukon Antipoverty Coalition, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of the Yukon, Salvation Army, Yukon Status of Women Council and the Second Opinion Society.

The coalition is holding its first public meeting in the New Year. It’s on Monday, January 17, at the Whitehorse Public Library.

Questions will be fielded, and a board of directors will be appointed.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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