No homeless hotels here

Whitehorse's hardest-to-house lost a champion this week. The Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition is withdrawing its proposal to build a 20-room supported apartment complex in downtown Whitehorse.

Whitehorse’s hardest-to-house lost a champion this week.

The Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition is withdrawing its proposal to build a 20-room supported apartment complex in downtown Whitehorse.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” said the coalition’s Kate Mechan, who gave more than 1,000 volunteer hours to get the proposal to the table.

The supported housing project was to target 20 clients who frequent the Salvation Army shelter.

See our special report on Yukon’s housing crisis

“They are society’s most marginalized and vulnerable,” said Mechan.

“And now they’ve been shoved to the fringes again.”

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 onboard, giving the group $10,000 in seed funding.

And the coalition had backing from several banks.

All it needed was support from Health and Social Services to get the ball rolling and start breaking ground.

The Yukon government is sitting on $18 million in federal housing money.

The coalition had requested $900,000.

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

But June came and went.

Despite frequent attempts to reach the department, Mechan heard nothing.

“It’s pretty disrespectful,” she said.

All the folks on the steering committee have put in hundreds and hundreds of hours working on the business plan and proposal, she said.

“And we have all these other parties on our building team, like the architect, and the builders, the property owners, banks and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation – we can’t just leave them in limbo.

“It’s not professional.”

So, the coalition is calling it quits.

“We can’t keep waiting around just because the government can’t come to the table and act like an adult,” said Mechan.

“All we wanted was to sit down and talk – not leave it hanging for four months.”

Now another winter is coming, she said.

“And the clients we were working to support are going to be in the exact same position.”

While the Yukon government sits mute, its neighbours in Alaska have been working hard to eliminate homelessness.

In the last few months, Alaska’s state housing authority has helped purchase two hotels, one in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks.

The single-occupancy hotel rooms are going to be used to house the city’s homeless.

“Every year in Anchorage we have eight to 15 (homeless) freeze to death,” said Jeff Jessee.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust CEO is behind the projects, which were inspired by housing-first models in Seattle and Minnesota.

“We’ve had politicians wringing their hands about our chronic public inebriates problem,” said Jessee.

But when he suggested giving these homeless addicts a place to live, Jessee met with opposition.

Local politicians didn’t like the homeless camping in public parks and in parking lots, but they didn’t want to house them either, he said.

So Jessee approached the politicos most opposed to the housing projects and invited them to Seattle to see it in action.

“In Seattle, there was concern that the neighbours would be opposed, and initially they were,” he said.

A Marriott down the road didn’t want to share the block with a homeless hotel.

But when its owners suddenly noticed that the homeless were no longer hanging around outside their doors, they changed their tune.

“The police are the biggest supporters, because they deal with these folks all the time,” said Jessee.

Suddenly the cops noticed they were no longer carting passed out regulars to the drunk tank, he said.

The hospital’s emergency room also saw a huge drop in call volume.

“What people don’t realize is that this is not just some bleeding heart liberal initiative,” said Jessee.

“It is backed by the police and hospitals.

“People don’t realize what heavy consumers of health care these people are.”

By the time the Anchorage junket came back from Seattle, the doubting politicos were convinced.

No only were the police and hospitals getting fewer calls, the tenants in the hotel also found themselves drinking less, and their health improved, said Jessee.

Alaska’s government bought a downtown hotel and kicked-off its own housing-first program.

After hearing about Anchorage’s new homeless hotel initiative, Fairbanks decided to follow suit.

The Fairbanks building is being run by a First Nation consortium.

So, instead of sending this group to Seattle, Jessee found a similar First Nation coalition in Minnesota, which was running a housing-first program, and sent the chiefs there.

Just like Seattle, the Duluth, Minnesota, model was a huge success.

It had removed the strain on local hospitals and law enforcement and its clients’ health and lives had improved significantly.

“You hear so many people say, ‘These people want to be homeless,’” said Jessee.

But Anchorage had no problem filling its 45 new rooms with tenants.

“And you hear people say, ‘These people want to drink,’” he said.

But, the people who finally got housing in Seattle had been through treatment 15 times, said Jessee.

“So it’s not that these people want to drink, we just don’t know how to help them stop drinking.”

Giving them housing and the stability that comes with it is a good first step, said Jessee.

“Once in housing, we’ve noticed their drinking goes down significantly.”

The Fairbanks homeless hotel will be open by December.

And Jessee hopes Yukon politicians and government employees come visit.

“We would love to host you guys,” he said.

“Or we could help set things up for your government to visit Seattle or Duluth,” he said.

“We’d be happy to help you guys set something like this up.”

But that’s exactly what the Yukon’s Northern Housing Coalition was trying to do.

Mechan and the coalition spent a year of their lives working on this proposal because they “really wanted to help these people,” she said.

But the Yukon government refused to come to the table.

“Even if you don’t think they’re deserving of help, you can argue that the costs to taxpayers go down when you house these people,” said Jessee.

“We’d be happy to organize a trip here, so your government officials can see that it works.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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