Usually it starts with an eviction.
Someone with a severe mental illness gets forced out of their apartment or home for being disruptive and has nowhere to go.
Their family won’t take them, they’re too much of a disturbance to stay in a shelter and there are few supported-living arrangements for them to turn to.
Last week, five people suffering from a combination of mental health and addictions issues walked into the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon in need of a place to live.
“The number of people in need of housing is rapidly increasing,” said Brooke Alsbury, executive director of the society.
And many of them are women.
As the weather has gotten colder, Charlotte Hrenchuk of the Yukon Status of Women Council has also seen an increase in the number of women seeking help.
Two weeks ago, she had three such women walk into the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre in need of a place to live. But it was one of these women in particular, that stood out in her mind.
“This woman’s family didn’t want her, and her boyfriend, who is a dealer, booted her out. She’s not a (drug or alcohol) user, so detox wouldn’t take her and there’s no room at Kaushee’s for her,” she said, her voice shaking and her eyes welling up with tears.
“She can stay at the Sally Anne for a bit, but because it’s dangerous for women in her condition, it’s not the greatest stopgap,” she continued.
“There’s literally no place for her to go.”
The woman admitted herself to Whitehorse General Hospital, but without a proper psychological ward at the hospital to supervise her, she eventually left.
“When I spoke with her, she was just completely out of it. She wasn’t coherent – she’s just not functioning in our reality,” said Hrenchuk.
Women like her need 24-hour care and support workers who understand mental health issues, she said.
Group homes like this exist for men, such as the privately run Aspen house, but there are no such homes for women in Whitehorse.
“Clients that have (this kind of housing) are far more stable and better able to address whatever (mental health and substance abuse) issues they have,” said Alsbury.
She sits on a Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition task force that is looking at ways of offering more second-stage housing for people suffering from substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness.
Without a home, women usually end up on the street or in “risky” couchsurfing situations, she pointed out.
And safe places for women who are suffering from mental illness, but aren’t fleeing violence, are even harder to come by.
“What do you gotta do, get abused just to have a place to sleep or eat?” said Veronica Germaine, speaking in reference to Kaushee’s Place, a shelter that only takes women who are escaping violence.
Germaine suffers from a borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The 33-year-old Northern Tutchone woman wound up at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre as a result of criminal charges she was eventually found not responsible for. After the charges were dropped, however, she remained at the jail even though psychiatrists and case workers admitted it wasn’t the best place for her to be.
“They had nowhere else to put me,” she told the News this spring.
“There are a lot of people out there with mental health issues and they’re treated like criminals.”
In February, she was finally released from Whitehorse Correctional after spending three years of her life in jail.
In the end, she got lucky.
She was moved to a Porter Creek home where she received 24-hour care from four different live-in staff.
“I am so thankful the (Whitehorse Correctional) review board told mental health to open their chequebooks and start doing something,” said Germaine.
“Every day I’m thankful to the review board for giving me another chance.”
But she knows she is the exception.
“There are so many people out there that aren’t getting the proper support,” said Germaine in an earlier interview with the News.
Stories like these are more common than people like to think, said Arlene Hache.
Hache moved to the North more than 20 years ago to “run away from family violence and incest.”
“I was traumatized, not functioning well and couldn’t keep a job,” said Hache who has managed to turn her life around. Now she is the executive director of the Centre for Northern Families in Yellowknife and received an Order of Canada in February for the work she does on behalf of women and children.
“I didn’t have supported housing,” she said. “If I did, I wouldn’t have been stuck so long on the streets – there would have been people who could have recognized my symptoms and helped me recover earlier.”
Instead, she figures it took her 20 to 25 years to understand the mental health issues she was dealing with before she could properly heal.
Two decades after arriving in Yellowknife, things aren’t much better, a situation she sees across the North. There still aren’t safe, supportive housing situations for people suffering from mental illness and trauma, she pointed out.
At least there is a Canadian Mental Health Association office in Yellowknife – there isn’t one in Whitehorse – and a psychological ward at the hospital in Yellowknife, but Hache’s experience there has been “terrible.”
Still, she’s thankful there is a women’s shelter in Yellowknife with 30 spaces available every night.
In Whitehorse, the last resort for women is the Salvation Army, a coed shelter that can be inappropriate and dangerous for women, said Hrenchuk.
Until there is proper support for these women, they will keep showing up on the doorstep of the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre and the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon, looking for help.
The hardest thing for Hrenchuk is having to turn these women away.
“There’s nothing satisfying I can say,” she said. “I can apologize and listen, but I can’t offer any satisfying solutions.
“I feel very powerless and sad because of that.”
Contact Vivian Belik at