Free room and board at WCC

The only housing Joe Johnson can find is a shared cell at Whitehorse Correctional Centre. The 34-year-old is struggling with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and alcohol addiction. It's a bad combination.

The only housing Joe Johnson can find is a shared cell at Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

The 34-year-old is struggling with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and alcohol addiction.

It’s a bad combination.

“My life is right downhill,” said Johnson, (not his real name).

He came to the Yukon three years ago, from Edmonton, because he heard there was lots of work here.

“I didn’t know there was also a major shortage of housing,” he said.

He landed a job at the Superstore on night-shift and worked for a local delivery company during the day.

But Johnson couldn’t find a place to live.

“I was staying with my sister for a bit, but she has a family of her own and I didn’t want to intrude,” he said.

The hotels were booked up and Johnson ended up on the street.

From there, it didn’t take long until he was back in jail.

“I’ve been in and out of jail since I was 16,” he said.

His relationship with alcohol goes back even further.

“I started drinking when I was eight,” he said.

“It’s a shadow that follows me.”

Johnson has been “trying to get a handle” on his drinking, but it’s hard when he’s living on the streets.

It’s the drinking that keeps landing him in jail.

“Every time I do something wrong, it’s because I’m drunk,” he said.

“And people can’t say to me, (Joe) go home, because I have no home.

“So they send me to jail.”

But last time Johnson went to jail, it was intentional.

“I was out for six months, staying with friends, and on the street,” he said.

Social services wouldn’t pay for a tent and Johnson is banned from the Salvation Army because he got in a fight with one of the staff.

He’s banned from a number of local hotels for the same reasons.

“You’re past catches up with you,” he said.

By December, Johnson was freezing and desperate.

“So I decided to come back to jail,” he said.

It was easy enough.

“I just breached my probation,” he said. “I started drinking.”

This happens a lot, said Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon outreach worker Shelly Halverson.

“You get clients who breach (their probation) so they can go back to jail,” she said. “Because you can only go so long without housing.”

Halverson has 12 clients, all struggling with fetal alcohol syndrome, and more than half of them are homeless.

Some are at the campground, some are couch surfing or at the Salvation Army, while others are just walking the streets.

Whitehorse needs more supportive housing, she said.

“And I fully support the Northern City Supportive Housing proposal.”

Over the 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 – people like Johnson.

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 onboard, 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.

So Johnson sits in jail, worrying about his upcoming release.

“They are going to send me to the (Adult Resource Centre) first,” he said.

“But I don’t know where I will go after that.

“I can’t even go to the Salvation Army to eat.”

Johnson doesn’t deny he has anger issues.

“I get frustrated,” he said.

“And when I get frustrated, I go off – I don’t even remember what I said – and by then it’s too late.”

Halverson calls them “environmental triggers.”

“Anything from visual clutter, noise or fatigue to being given too much information can make a client angry,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as a language processing issue.

“Someone might be trying to help, but they are using too many words and when the client can’t process them, they get angry.”

People struggling with fetal alcohol syndrome battle an invisible disability.

And Halverson tries to assist each of her clients using a strength-based approach.

She goes with them to court, visits them in jail and works with other local NGOs to establish a safety net of supports.

“But when it comes to housing, our hands are tied,” she said.

“I have clients sleeping outside. And at the end of the day, when they can’t find housing, and you can’t find housing for them, it’s distressing.”

All the support services and agencies are dealing with the same issue, said Halverson.

“There’s just no housing, even for people who have jobs and money.”

And when her clients end up in jail, they lose their social assistance cheque, which means they lose whatever housing they had.

Then, once they’re out of jail, they have to sign up for social assistance and wait for a cheque before they can find a place, she said. And even then they likely won’t have money for first and last month’s rent, she said.

“It’s a huge barrier,” said Halverson.

Up at the jail, Johnson worries about his future.

He’s really good at math.

“I wanted to go to college to become a math tutor,” he said.

“But I have trouble sitting in school, because my attention span isn’t that long.

“But I want to do good, and get a hold of my drinking.

“I don’t want to end up totally screwed up.

“I just want a place where I can lay my head, because I haven’t had that since I’ve been up here.”

Then Johnson made light of it.

“Maybe I’ll dig a cave in the clay cliffs,” he said with a laugh.

“It would be my home.”

Sometimes, when despair starts creeping in, Johnson turns to humour.

“I just want to make people laugh,” he said.

“When I see them laugh, it makes my day.”

Although his situation is dire, Johnson is more worried about the well being of others.

“I know there are people less fortunate than me,” he said.

“That’s why I keep going everyday.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

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