An emergency youth shelter could have saved Justin Jim, says his 17-year-old cousin as she warms up at Blue Feather Youth Centre on Tuesday afternoon.
A number of years ago, Justin had been drinking and was scared to go home, said Tamara Jim.
“He was afraid he’d get in trouble for drinking.”
It was March.
“Justin ended up climbing the clay cliffs, passed out and froze to death.”
He was 16.
Five days after they became available, Tamara still hadn’t heard about two emergency beds at alcohol and drug services, for homeless youth ages 17 to 20.
Youth under 17 will be directed to child and family services. Or simply taken home.
Health gave Skookum Jim Friendship Centre $191,000 to run the four-month pilot.
The money is mainly for worker salaries, said Health spokesperson Pat Living. It will also cover Skookum’s car rental and cellphone costs.
Four workers, two per shift, are on call from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. seven days a week.
That’s roughly $11,000 per worker, per month.
Staff will carry a cellphone. Youth can call and, if they fit the bill, will get a bed.
The on-call workers can go home and sleep, as long as they’re carrying their cellphone, said Skookum outreach worker Viola Papequash on Tuesday.
The News asked both Health and Skookum’s executive director Michelle Kolla for a breakdown of how the money will be spent.
There has been no response.
The pilot program, which may also use beds at Kaushee’s Place, started January 25th.
So far, no youth have called the service.
“I wouldn’t want to go there because it’s a detox,” said Tamara.
“I wouldn’t like the atmosphere, with a bunch of drunk people around.”
“I don’t think anyone would want to go to the detox,” said James, a 20-year-old youth at Blue Feather.
“It’s retarded — who would want to go to detox to sleep — you go to detox to detox.”
Some youth might be too scared to call, said Jackie, who has struggled with homelessness in the past.
“The first time I went to the (Salvation Army shelter), I was afraid they’d say, ‘No.’”
If she was really desperate, Amber Jerome would call and ask for a bed, she said.
“But it would be uncomfortable,” said the 17-year-old.
“Everybody goes there to stop drinking — it would be weird to just go there to sleep.”
The emergency beds will be used to evaluate the number of youth who need shelter, said Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers.
But it’s not a good indicator, said Blue Feather executive director Vicki Durrant on Thursday.
“From working with youth, I know it takes a long time to develop trust,” she said. “And if they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to call.”
Beds at alcohol and drug services may provide support for some youth, said Durrant.
“But this project should not be used as an indictor — it’s not accurate — it’s short-term.
“It’s like putting a thermometer in a house and asking what the temperature is outside.”
In October, the Yukon government approached Durrant about re-opening the Roadhouse as an interim youth shelter, she said.
Blue Feather put in a proposal.
A month later, an ad hoc committee, which included Council of Yukon First Nations, Skookum, government reps and Durrant, examined possible shelter locations.
The Roadhouse was shot down.
It was too close to bars and offsales outlets.
Durrant, who once ran a shelter there, discussed the location with the RCMP.
They assured her it was a suitable area.
But it didn’t pan out.
The Roadhouse lacked political support from the chiefs, said Council of Yukon First Nations elder and youth advisor Joan Graham, who sat on the ad hoc committee.
But Graham’s not convinced beds at alcohol and drug services are much better.
“I’m not expecting this (pilot project) will have a big uptake,” she said.
“I don’t think youth will want to go to these places — I wouldn’t want to go to any of these places.
“But if I was freezing and needed a bed ….”
And establishing an emergency youth shelter might not have worked either, she added.
“There is no ideal answer.”
This isn’t Vancouver, said Graham.
“We don’t have people bundled in sleeping bags on the streets — it’s hard to get the numbers and lots of youth are couch surfing — this hides the problem.”
If kids are couch surfing, they might not use a shelter, said Graham.
Durrant has talked about buying the old Whitehorse hostel, formerly Hide on Jeckell, with the Council of Yukon First Nations.
It’s for sale, comes with beds and has the right zoning.
It’s perfect, said Durrant, who has sent out feelers to Yukon First Nation governments.
But to proceed she needs a commitment from the territory.
The property would work, said Graham, citing past issues with zoning, renovations and the need for separate bathrooms for men and women.
Ideally, it would be more than just an emergency shelter for youth, said Graham.
“The other problem is affordable housing.”
The proposed shelter could also have beds for youth in transition and run programs to help young people learn how to manage their own apartments, she said.
Hide on Jeckell is selling for just over $400,000.
So far, Health has given $191,000 to Skookum to run its four-month pilot and $36,000 to Blue Feather to extend its hours of operation.
On Thursday, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations gave $50,000 to address youth homelessness in Whitehorse.
There are a many ways the money could be spent, including investing in a youth shelter, youth programming and research, according to the release.
Youth homelessness is a complex problem requiring the involvement of all Yukon First Nations, said Graham.
First Nations need to determine how many youth are in town and how many are couch surfing, she said.
“And the new (pilot project) will give us some stats — good or bad.
“But it should just be an interim measure, while we develop a good plan.”