Roadhouse shutters affordable housing

At the end of February, the Roadhouse Inn is closing, leaving 23 people homeless. Luna is one of them. The 11-day-old baby lives there with her parents in a tiny room with cloth diapers and towels strung across one corner.

At the end of February, the Roadhouse Inn is closing, leaving 23 people homeless.

Luna is one of them.

The 11-day-old baby lives there with her parents in a tiny room with cloth diapers and towels strung across one corner.

The bathroom is down the hall.

So is the shared kitchen, where Luna takes her baths in the sink.

“It’s the only place we could find,” said her dad Andrew Malenfant.

The family has a dog, and it limited their chances of landing better accommodations.

Upstairs, Annamaria Battaja is struggling with HIV.

RELATED:See images of the affected residents.

Across the hall, Holly Bednarik’s walker lies folded against his microwave and hot plate.

He worked in the Yukon for the last decade until his gout and sciatic nerve troubles started acting up.

Behind every worn, chipped door there’s a similar story.

“People are scared,” said Jean-Francois McNicholl.

“Where are we all going to go?

“There’s no room at the Salvation Army.

“And we can’t all sleep outside.”

The Roadhouse offers low-income housing to Whitehorse’s down-and-out – something that’s sorely needed and fast disappearing.

Three years ago, the Pioneer Inn, a run-down, mouldy building just down the street from the Roadhouse, was demolished.

Some of those tenants set up tents in the bush, or managed to find rooms at other downtown hotels renting by the month.

Others wound up on the street.

Allan Anderson fears he’s headed in that direction.

“I’m pretty much hooped,” said the former graphic designer.

“The Salvation Army doesn’t have enough beds for all of us.”

(The Salvation Army shelter’s 10 beds are full most nights, with overflow clients sleeping on hard plastic chairs.)

Anderson has been calling around, but can’t find any accommodation.

“There really is nothing out there,” he said.

“Not for people like us.”

Anderson was about to start the Pegasus Program, to rein in his hepatitis C.

He would have received a shot once a week and five pills daily.

“And in six months to a year it would have put me at negative,” he said.

But Anderson needs an address to access the program.

And with no place to go at the end of February, he will no longer have one.

“I won’t be able to do the program,” he said.

He’ll also have no place to store his stuff.

“It will probably end up in the dumpster,” he said.

Anderson has been at the Roadhouse for the last three years, and his room is homey, with plants, knickknacks and art on the walls.

Most of the paintings are by established Yukon artist Megan Hildebrand, his former co-worker at Terra Firma.

Anderson lost his job because he’s an alcoholic.

So is Battaja.

She was living on the streets until Anderson let her share his small room.

“I had double pneumonia four times,” she said.

That and the HIV keep Battaja in and out of the hospital.

“They’re trying to keep me alive,” she said.

“But I’m dying.

“And if I lose this place, you’re going to find me down at the river, just giving up.”

Next door, at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill, owner Crystal Birmingham is the only waitress on shift.

It was her decision to shut down the Roadhouse Inn.

But it wasn’t easy, she said.

The building, which Birmingham leases from Con Lattin, is 60 years old and needs structural repairs.

“And there is no way to tell how bad it is until we rip it apart,” she said.

“It needs to be empty to do that.”

But why close it in February? said Bednarik.

“At least when they tore the Pioneer down it wasn’t in the middle of winter,” he said.

Nobody’s moving in February, said Bednarik, who has been calling other hotels and every affordable rental he can find in the classifieds.

“When I call, everything is already gone,” he said.

“If I’d known this was happening, I would have looked for a place in the fall.”

Before giving her clients the bad news, Birmingham also called other hotels, including the Chilkoot and the Stratford, to see if there was room.

“But they were all full,” she said.

The decision to kick everyone out in February came from Lattin, who wanted to have time to assess the damages and “get all his ducks in a row” so that repairs could be done in the short Yukon building season, said Birmingham.

“There’s never a good time to kick people out,” said Lattin.

In the spring and summer all the rooms are taken by Outside workers coming to the territory, he said.

Lattin isn’t sure what the building will become after the renos.

“But I’m pretty sure it won’t be a hotel,” he said.

When Lattin was running the Roadhouse, he also housed low-income tenants.

“A lot of people won’t take them,” he said.

Closing the Roadhouse, “wasn’t any easy thing to decide,” said Birmingham.

But the building has been losing money for the past 10 months.

“I know that’s a cold-hearted way to look at it,” she said. “Because it’s people we’re talking about.”

Birmingham wanted to run a bar, not a hotel.

The hotel was added because it was required under the Yukon Liquor Act.

Government regulations also required the rooms be rented by the day, not monthly, she said.

But at the same time, government began sending Birmingham monthly clients through Social Services.

“It was a catch-22,” she said.

Social assistance paid the rent – $600 a month for rooms with shared bathrooms and $850 for rooms with private baths – and covered the key deposit.

But it refused to pay damage deposits.

A lot of the clients sent to Birmingham had mental health issues, addiction problems and physical disabilities.

“And there are a lot of violent outbursts and things get destroyed,” she said.

“And many of the people with health issues can’t clean up after themselves.”

Time and again, Birmingham found herself replacing drywall with holes punched in it, and ripping up disgusting carpeting.

The cost to carpet, drywall and paint a room is often more than $2,000, she said.

“And that’s if we do most of the work ourselves.”

Birmingham started taking before-and-after pictures of the rooms to show Social Services.

The department still refused to pay for the damages, and continued to send its clients to the Roadhouse.

On several occasions, Birmingham walked into rooms full of used needles.

And once a man trying to detox grabbed her by the throat and held her off the ground until she couldn’t breathe.

That’s when she hired a security guy.

“He’s not cheap either,” she said.

But the bad apples are the exception, not the norm, said Birmingham.

“Addictions or not, very few of these people are nasty or mean,” she said.

“And this group living there now is the best I’ve ever had.”

As Birmingham struggled to house Whitehorse’s most needy, she watched the Yukon government buying up more and more office space downtown.

“Instead of more office space, why doesn’t government get an apartment building and run it as low-cost housing?” she said.

“Then it could have all the services and support workers in one building, instead of having them drive all over town.”

Birmingham sees the Outreach Van regularly frequent her hotel, as well as support workers and counsellors.

Right now, it’s falling to private businesses like the Roadhouse, the Chilkoot and the Stratford to house the destitute.

“And the government needs to step up and take more responsibility,” said Birmingham.

“I have a social conscience,” she said. “But I also have four children, and I have to think of my family.”

Closing the Roadhouse was one of the toughest decisions Birmingham’s ever had to make.

“I cried a lot,” she said.

Next door, anger isn’t directed at Birmingham.

In fact, there is very little anger.

“We’re trying to stay positive,” said Luna’s mom Janie Grenier.

“We believe we’re going to find a place.”

McNicholl used to live on the streets.

“And I just don’t want that to happen again,” he said.

“But I don’t know where we’re all going to go.

“The hotels are already full,” he said.

“It makes me anxious.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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