Help the homeless? To do that, we’d better study the problem more first.
That’s been the pat answer offered by the Yukon Party government since, well, there’s been a Yukon Party government.
The same line was trotted out again this week, as Glenn Hart, minister of Health and Social Services, found himself under fire over services offered to homeless Yukoners.
A slew of studies have already been conducted on the territory’s homeless over the past decade. Despite this, Hart says the work isn’t over yet.
This response came after Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell prodded Hart to explain why the territory hasn’t created a permanent youth shelter.
There has been a longstanding demand for such a shelter by nonprofits who help homeless youth. Two years ago, the Youth of Today Society went as far as buying an old hostel on Jeckell Street to convert into a 10-bed shelter, named Angel’s Nest, with the hope that government would fund it.
But the territory balked, for reasons that remain vague.
“When a new program is being proposed - especially one that, in its entirety, is going to be more than $2 million - it has to be one that is soundly based on careful analysis of need and a business case for sustainability and business outcomes,” Hart told the legislature on Tuesday.
Critics have wondered aloud why the territory doesn’t help Youth of Today beef up its plans so that it passes government scrutiny. No clear answer has been offered.
Hart also offered this: “We must be careful to support those programs which we are confident will not tend to perpetuate street culture, but offer alternatives to that culture.”
If homeless youth want help, they need to follow the rules and attend programming to put them back on track, Hart added.
The territory is taking an “evidence-based approach” to study the needs of the homeless in its forthcoming “social inclusion” strategy, he said.
That initiative kicked off this summer with an ill-conceived public awareness campaign that involved painting slogans such as “You don’t belong here” on Whitehorse sidewalks. The signs were to supposed to make the public think about the plight of the marginalized.
“Besides painting sidewalks, what is this government doing to provide a safe and a secure place for youth at risk?” asked Mitchell.
A social inclusion “task force” will make recommendations to government by the end of the year, said Hart.
The opposition also continued to question the government’s relocation of four temporary youth beds from the Sarah Steele building to a social housing unit that stands immediately beside Angel’s Nest. The move is a temporary one, while the Sarah Steele building is renovated.
“This issue has become a bit contrived,” said Hart. “Those beds will be returned in one month. The place we chose was the property we already own, staffed with employees who are already on the payroll. Take-up of those beds continues to be light.
“To date, we have not turned away any youth due to overcrowding.”
The temporary shelter gives off an unfriendly vibe, the NDP’s Steve Cardiff recently noted.
A sign on its door explains that would-be clients must call a number and be screened before entry. “Staff will not open this door for any reason,” it states.
Youth who stay at the temporary shelter must leave with their belongings by 9 a.m. They cannot return until 9 p.m.
Not helping matters, Hart told the legislature on Monday that “some people will be homeless no matter what we do. It’s their choice - they want to be.”
Even homeless advocates would agree this is true. But the comment, yanked out of context, provided ample fodder for the opposition for the rest of the week.
“Perhaps it’s easy for this minister to shirk his responsibility by saying this is not his problem,” Mitchell said on Tuesday.
The territory spends $35 million annually on social programs for children, youth and families, said Hart. “This is a measure of the government’s commitment.”
That includes $220,000 provided to Angel’s Nest to provide day services for youth.
Mitchell also asked Hart whether he supported a proposal by the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition. The group, comprised of different non-profits, wants the territory to fund a permanent shelter for homeless, hardcore alcoholics in Whitehorse.
Nonprofits argue that the territory would ultimately save money by paying for such a facility, by taking the city’s hardest-to-house clients off the circuit between drunk tank, emergency room and temporary shelter.
Hart plans to meet with the group later this month, he said. He wouldn’t commit to helping, but “conceptually, I agree this is something that needs to be looked at,” he said.
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