Petition pushes supportive housing plan

The Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition wants your help. They aren't asking for much. Just a signature.

The Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition wants your help.

They aren’t asking for much. Just a signature.

It’s been seven months since the group of non-profits announced their plans to build a 20-unit supportive housing project in downtown Whitehorse.

They already have a proposed site, design plans and a building team lined up. What’s missing is money. To get that, they need Yukon government support.

The coalition hopes that a show of public support will help their cause. So they’ve begun a petition.

Copies can be found at Baked Cafe, Bent Spoon Cafe, the Salvation Army, the Yukon Status of Women Society and the Second Opinion Society. The deadline to add your name is Saturday.

On Monday, NDP Leader Liz Hanson will table the petition in the legislature. Coalition members hope to collect several hundred names by then.

A petition can also be found online, at www.northerncityhousing.org. But, because Yukon’s legislature doesn’t accept online petitions, these signatures won’t be included with the tabled papers.

The coalition wants to give Whitehorse’s hardest to house a place to live – and drink. It’s a controversial approach that’s bound to attract criticism, which may explain why the government has yet to endorse the idea.

Called Housing First, it challenges the conventional wisdom that many homeless people choose to sleep on the street, and that quitting drinking is primarily a matter of willpower.

It turns out that coping with alcoholism and its attendant ills is a lot easier with a roof over your head.

In Seattle, a similar project was dubbed “Bunks for Drunks” by critics who wondered why the state should subsidize destructive behaviour.

But Seattle now estimates it saves $4 million annually by helping some of the city’s hardest-to-house clients. The coalition believes this approach would save money in Whitehorse also, where hardcore alcoholics threaten to overwhelm the resources of the police, ambulances and emergency room nurses.

In 2009-10, the emergency room faced 1,744 alcohol-related admissions. That’s approximately five each day.

Just 22 clients accounted for one-third of these admissions. Three people were admitted 60 times or more. That’s more than once a week.

The coalition project’s total cost is expected to be $1.8 million. The housing coalition hopes to get half of that from a federal grant that’s being administered by the Yukon Housing Corporation. The remainder would be leveraged from a bank once government funding is in place.

But in order to get the federal grant, the coalition needs to show that it could pay workers at the facility. To do that, it needs to win the support of Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services.

The coalition initially expected it would need an annual operating grant of $250,000. But those costs have nearly doubled, to $488,000, since the coalition began revising its business case with government help to take into account the cost of adequate, 24-hour supervision of the facility.

Whitehorse’s acute housing shortage has also driven up the price of downtown lots, which may throw off their construction estimates.

Bill Thomas, the coalition’s project manager, recently had a “productive meeting” with an assistant deputy minister of Health and vice-president of the housing corporation. He left with the impression that senior staff would soon pass a proposal up to the cabinet table.

The opposition Liberals and NDP have both expressed support for the project. So has city council. But it’s the governing Yukon Party MLAs who will ultimately decide whether the project receives the green light.

Coalition members urge anyone who supports the project to write to their MLA and the premier.

“Time is of the essence,” said coalition member Laird Herbert.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.