Report finds many Yukon women trading sex for shelter

The woman walked into a Whitehorse bar and sold herself to a man. “He gave me a beer  — he did what he wanted to do and then I…

The woman walked into a Whitehorse bar and sold herself to a man.

“He gave me a beer  — he did what he wanted to do and then I walked into detox,” she later told her service provider.

It was the only way she could get shelter.

The story is just one of many in A Little Kindness Would Go a Long Way: a study of women’s homelessness in the Yukon, released in November.

Created by the Yukon Status of Women Council, the 194-page report chronicles interviews with 66 homeless Yukon women.

Interviewing the women “was awful — it was very, very depressing,” said status co-ordinator Charlotte Hrenchuk.

“Especially because I couldn’t offer them anything concrete, as far as a place to stay.”

Hrenchuk approached service providers in Whitehorse and the communities to get stats and talk with women.

Once word got out, homeless women also began to approach Hrenchuk.

“The women were really happy that someone was interested in their stories, in their expertise and in their recommendations because they are so marginalized,” she said.

Homelessness in the territory is hidden.

“It’s not all First Nations women living on the riverbank,” said Hrenchuk.

The report cites a divorced working woman living hand-to-mouth in a Whitehorse hotel room, an elderly woman who left her community to escape 50 years of abuse and a single mother sleeping in the closet of a relative’s one-bedroom apartment with her young son.

“Homelessness is a hidden and potential risk for everyone, given the wrong set of circumstances,” said Hrenchuk.

The report sets out to give a more accurate account of homelessness in the North.

“I met a guy once and I didn’t really like him,” one woman says in the study.

“I was staying down in the industrial area and got beaten up. So I lived with this guy.

“You have to do stuff you don’t want to in order to live somewhere.

“It’s very discouraging and humiliating.”

Many of the women sharing stories have lost hope.

“A lot of people don’t realize how many people are on the streets and are homeless in the Yukon winters,” said one woman.

“It’s been so long that after awhile you figure out that it’s hopeless — who cares?”

Many of the women discuss drinking problems.

“It’s hard to get help,” said one woman.

“The services have too many requirements. If I’m drunk, I have to sleep on the street or worse.

“I guess it’s OK if us drunks freeze to death.”

Others discussed simple necessities most people take for granted.

Without a phone or an address, it’s hard to get a job, many of the women noted.

And “it’s hard keeping in touch with the resources that might help you,” she added.

“You phone places and leave messages, but they can’t phone you back.

“One of the worst things about being totally homeless is not having a bathroom.

“You have to use a public washroom somewhere, but they don’t want you to use it. You especially need to have handy access to a washroom when you have your period.”

The report has many stories where women trade sex for shelter or a warm place to stay.

“Young women are especially vulnerable,” said one woman.

They find themselves “staying with guys that they don’t even like, much less love, because it’s a place to sleep.”

The stories were hard to take, said Hrenchuk.

“The depth of a lot of women’s pain was really heartbreaking to me,” she said.

“And realizing the amount of calamitous events that can befall women.

“It was heartbreaking having women cry and be so ashamed when talking about staying with a man just to have a place to stay.”

Hrenchuk hopes the report will debunk many of the stereotypes surrounding homelessness.

She also hopes it will affect change.

The Yukon Landlord and Tenant Act needs to be amended, she said.

Whitehorse needs an emergency women’s shelter. There needs to be more supported housing.

And there must be places women can go if they are drunk, stoned or have kids, said Hrenchuk.

Many of the stories in the report discuss safety issues women face at the mostly male Salvation Army shelter.

Other women who weren’t being abused had been turned away from Kaushee’s Place.

And many of the women interviewed were living in substandard housing with no heat, broken windows and black mould.

“The positive thing is there are practical solutions to women’s homelessness,” said Hrenchuk.

The Women’s Directorate and the Council of Yukon First Nations are funding a feasibility study for a women’s emergency shelter, she said.

The Yukon government is looking at supportive housing options for women with children.

And the city has expanded its bus service to include the college and the Canada Games Centre.

“Any improvement to transit is a great blessing in improving poor women’s lives,” said Hrenchuk, citing parts of the report where women trade sexual favours for rides home.

“There are lots of practical solutions that can happen, given the will,” she said.

A Little Kindness Would Go a Long Way is available at the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre and at the Women’s Directorate.

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