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Homelessness, by the numbers

The Yukon Party government has two more reasons to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse.

The Yukon Party government has two more reasons to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse.

On Wednesday, the territory released two reports: one deals specifically with the problem of homelessness in Whitehorse, while the other takes a broader look at the barriers that poor, socially excluded Yukoners face.

Appropriately, both reports were released at the Whitehorse Public Library, a place frequented by homeless Yukoners in an effort to warm up on winter days.

Neither report will offer many surprises to Yukoners already familiar with the plight of the territory’s homeless. But the reports provide hard numbers that will help justify government policy.

Glenn Hart, minister of Health and Social Services, has said he would wait until receiving these reports, and another soon-to-be-released paper that looks at how to best treat homeless alcoholics, before making any decisions as to what new homeless facilities the territory will build. The Yukon Party first signalled its intent to build a new shelter of some kind in late October.

Expect to hear some hints of what Hart has in mind in late January, when the territory holds a conference on social inclusion. Details will likely be held back until Premier Dennis Fentie releases the territory’s 2011 budget in the spring.

Neither of the two new reports make any recommendations to government - for that, we’ll have to wait until the government releases its social inclusion strategy, which is due out by June.

All this provides the government with a timeline to dribble out its homelessness announcements until the end of its mandate, in the autumn of 2011.

Both new reports reinforce the view any new homeless shelter will need to be staffed with professionals to help clients struggling with mental health issues, said Michael McCann, who heads the government’s office of social inclusion and poverty reduction.

The Whitehorse Housing Adequacy Study concludes there were upwards of 107 homeless people in Whitehorse, as of April and May.

“We know the numbers are guaranteed to be higher,” said Rachel Westfall, Yukon’s chief statistician.

Most homeless respondents did not stay at the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter. Instead, they camped, slept in vehicles, squatted in abandoned buildings or couch-surfed.

The report draws on the results of a questionnaire that was designed by the Yukon Antipoverty Coalition and the Yukon bureau of statistics. It was distributed to Whitehorse residents who receive social assistance, are on the affordable housing waitlist or frequent various nonprofits.

Of the 748 Yukoners who completed the survey, 641 reported they were housed. But many of them reported challenges in finding safe, affordable accommodations.

Some stayed in hotels or were put up by friends or family. Others lived “in unsafe, dilapidated, overcrowded or unaffordable housing.” A small number lacked basic amenities such as running water and electricity.

In all, 58 per cent of respondents said it was hard to find affordable rental accommodations, 50 per cent said it was hard to find any vacancies and 46 per cent said they couldn’t afford the deposit and the first and last months’ rent.

One-third of respondents were aboriginal. Three-quarters were single. More than half had an income under $20,000. Nearly equal numbers of men and women responded.

Rick Goodfellow, an advocate for the disabled who sits on an advisory committee for the study, was struck by how 14 per cent of respondents said they needed accessible housing: “That was a surprise,” he said.

Ross Findlater, co-chair of the Yukon Antipoverty Coalition, knew from his firsthand dealings with Whitehorse’s needy that housing was out of reach for many.

“We’ve known it in our guts. But there haven’t been statistics. These are really the first valid statistics that’ll carry some weight,” he said. “Without a baseline, you can’t hold anyone accountable.”

The antipoverty coalition did a “quick and dirty” head count of Whitehorse’s homeless about two years ago, said Findlater. “It was quite correctly criticized for not being rigorous. It wasn’t meant to be. It was a snapshot.”

A wide-angle picture of the health of the territory is captured with the second report, Dimensions of Social Inclusion and Exclusion in Yukon. It draws on information from the federal census and other national reports, as well as a randomized study of 927 Yukoners conducted over the summer.

One bright spot Findlater found in the report was how Yukoners “did so well compared to national figures” on literacy and numeracy, he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t problem on those fronts. One-third of Yukoners have low literacy, and 43 per cent have trouble with basic mathematics.

Forty-one per cent of First Nation men in the Yukon haven’t graduated from high school, “which puts them at a huge disadvantage in the labour market,” the report states.

The proportion of violent crimes committed in the Yukon outstrips any of the provinces, but lags behind Canada’s other two territories. Yukon’s well-off are largely insulated from the booze-fuelled chaos that fuels these crimes: those who bear the brunt are already needy.

Both reports are available at

Contact John Thompson at