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Homeless lessons from Alaska

When Scott Ciambor rolled into Whitehorse for this year's Klondike Road Relay, he was surprised to see tents on the lawn of the legislature. "At first, I thought it was runners camping to cut costs on hotel rooms,"...

When Scott Ciambor rolled into Whitehorse for this year’s Klondike Road Relay, he was surprised to see tents on the lawn of the legislature.

“At first, I thought it was runners camping to cut costs on hotel rooms,” said the Juneau, Alaska, resident.

But it soon became obvious the tents had nothing to do with the relay.

Ciambor is familiar with housing problems and homelessness. For three years, he’s been employed full time as Juneau’s affordable housing co-ordinator and co-chair of the Juneau Homeless Coalition.

But Whitehorse’s tent city caught Ciambor off guard.

“I’m surprised it happened so quickly,” he said. “But regionally, I’m not surprised.”

Juneau faces many of the same challenges as Whitehorse.

The city of 30,000 has little available land, houses are expensive and it has its share of homeless addicts living in parks downtown.

But Juneau has one thing Whitehorse doesn’t - an affordable housing co-ordinator.

The city and the state chip in roughly $100,000 a year to pay Ciambor’s salary and to cover the costs of the groups’ meetings, supplies and planning.

“My direct role is to provide guidance to the city on housing issues,” he said.

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

Ciambor doesn’t work alone.

There are more than 30 local organizations and groups 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.

“Collaboration is the key,” said Ciambor. “Because a lot of agencies recognize that there is a housing problem, but feel their hands are tied.”

Housing issues are not any one agency’s responsibility, he said.

“We need to get all parties to the table to build up trust and come up with a remedy.”

Ciambor organizes monthly meetings where government and city employees sit down with local NGOs, frontline workers, hospital staff, justice workers and police to brainstorm solutions.

The city already has a 40-bed emergency shelter and a medical clinic for its homeless population. And more housing is in the works.

“Some of these projects are expensive on the front end,” said Ciambor. “But in the long run are much better for the city.”

Juneau’s a small city and doesn’t get a lot of federal development funding, said Ciambor.

Whitehorse doesn’t have this problem.

In fact, the Yukon government is currently sitting on $18 million that was earmarked for affordable housing.

The money has to be spent before March, or it disappears.

Last year, Yukon Housing issued a call for proposals to help house Whitehorse’s homeless alcoholics.

“Calling on nonprofits to develop housing plans is unrealistic because nonprofits aren’t builders or developers,” said local altruist Laird Herbert.

Despite this, Herbert rallied local nonprofits, which “stepped up to the plate.”

Together with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon, Blood Ties Four Directions, Many Rivers, Second Opinion Society, Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, the Salvation Army, the Status of Women Council and the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, Herbert formed the Northern City Supported Housing Coalition and drafted a proposal.

Unlike Ciambor, Herbert wasn’t paid for his work.

Together with coalition member Kate Mechan, Herbert spent more than 1,000 volunteer hours tweaking the pitch to build a 20-room supported apartment complex in downtown Whitehorse for the city’s hardest to house.

Yukon Housing, then Health and Social Services, kept asking Northern City for improved business plans and other paperwork.

“We kept submitting more documents,” said Herbert.

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, giving 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.

In March, the department assured the coalition it would have its answer by June.

But June came and went without an answer.

“We kept trying to contact the department, but no one would talk to us,” said Herbert.

“But now it’s obvious they had no intent to follow through, despite all our business plans and partnerships, etc.”

After waiting more than six months for a response from the department, the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition withdrew its proposal at the end of August.

“We did it as a form of protest,” said Herbert.

Several days later, Health and Social Services responded.

“The Northern City proposal was under consideration, along with several others, until the time it was withdrawn,” wrote department spokesperson Patricia Living in a September 1 email to the News.

“We believed that the model proposed did have merit and worked with the NGO to make sure that we fully understood the scope of the proposal and to assist the group in refining the proposal,” she wrote.

“We respect the decision of the group to withdraw the proposal.”

Herbert has still heard nothing from the department.

“There was no due diligence and no accountability from (Health and Social Services),” he said.

“We were ready to go - then, nothing.”

There was only so long Northern City could keep the landowners, bankers and CMHC waiting.

“It was so unprofessional,” said Herbert.

In Juneau, Ciambor’s coalition is working to draft solutions similar to Northern City’s proposal.

But unlike Northern City, which can’t get the Yukon government to sit down and discuss the proposal, Alaskan government reps are part of Ciambor’s coalition and the government is paying his wages.

In the last few months, Ciambor’s fielded four proposals for affordable-living options in Juneau, including an 11-unit, low-income complex, a seniors’ studio and an assisted-living complex.

One of the proposals has already been given $13,000 in seed funding, and the others have been given suggestions for improvements, he said.

“There’s a lot of collaboration and insight and various expertise and guidance we offer the developers,” he said.

In the Yukon, Herbert is waiting for the upcoming territorial election.

“Both the Liberals and the NDP have said they’d support our project,” he said.

“I just don’t think the Yukon Party gets it.

“It’s definitely an old boys’ club and it’s hard to tap into.

“But if the government changes, it will happen.”

In the meantime, another winter is coming. “And we might lose a few more people, just like last year,” said Herbert.

He had hoped Northern City would have put a roof over their heads by now.

Instead, $18 million in housing money is still sitting in government coffers.

“When that money is allocated, there has to be a process that is followed,” said Herbert.

“But everything seems so nebulous.

“It all seems to happen at the minister’s whim.”

Health and Social Services did not return calls by press time.

Contact Genesee Keevil at