Senior sleeping in the rain, again

Mabel Peterson is back in a tent, but this year it's a lot smaller and only has one good pole.

Mabel Peterson is back in a tent, but this year it’s a lot smaller and only has one good pole.

The 71-year-old elder set up the rickety white-and-maroon pup tent on a two-metre plot of grass behind the Salvation Army shelter in downtown Whitehorse this week.

“For a long time she slept on our back steps,” said shelter supervisor Judy Lightening.

“She was comfy in our little doorwell, but in the damp weather it was chilly.”

The tent is no better.

“Last night all she had was a sleeping bag and a heavy coat,” said Lightening on Tuesday.

With very limited mobility, Peterson also wears pull-ups – adult diapers.

“And if those pull-ups get wet, it’s going to be chilly, because you’re wet,” said Lightening.

But Peterson’s used to the cold.

Last fall, as temperatures plummeted, she was discovered in a tent at the base of the clay cliffs.

That was a better setup, said Lightening.

That tent had a mattress in it, to lift Peterson off the frozen ground, and a tarp kept out most of the bone-chilling rain.

Peterson’s eldest daughter, who lives in Inuvik, didn’t realize her mom was in a tent.

After a story came out in the News, she brought her to Inuvik, but a few months later Peterson was back in Whitehorse, holding court on the Salvation Army’s front porch.

Fiercely independent and addicted to alcohol, Peterson is not easy to house.

But Lightening isn’t giving up.

After Peterson came back from Inuvik, Lightening approached Social Services.

“And they were going to pay for her housing,” she said.

“But then they discovered Mabel had an Indian number and sent her to DIA.

“So we were back to square one.”

Indian Affairs wasn’t willing to give Peterson the same offer as Social Services.

“White man’s welfare is better,” said Lightening.

Indian Affairs would only pay for part of Peterson’s rent. She’d have to top up the rest with her pension.

“And Mabel won’t do that,” said Lightening.

Born in Aklavik, NWT, Peterson is an Eskimo. So it’s not clear why she has an Indian number at all, said Lightening.

After 13 years at All Saints residential school, Peterson moved to Inuvik and, eventually, Whitehorse.

She used to get more than $1,000 a month through her “Inuvialuit-Eskimo cheque,” but now she just gets a pension.

“It’s $500 and something,” Peterson told the News in a previous interview.

Last winter, the Salvation Army helped pay for a room at the Chilkoot Trail Inn for Peterson for a brief period.

But the organization can’t afford to subsidize Whitehorse’s huge homeless population.

“Whitehorse needs assisted housing,” said Lightening.

“It needs something like the Chilkoot, where there’s a desk and the people are monitored and the housekeeping is monitored.

“Otherwise, people get an apartment and they’re not housebroken and it’s a big disaster and they’re evicted.”

When she stays at the Salvation Army, Peterson is forced to shower and can’t bring her bottle to bed.

She also has to get up at 7 a.m. and can’t rest during the day, because the beds are off limits.

That’s why she sometimes opts for the derelict tent, said Lightening, who has asked the Salvation Army captains to leave it up for now.

On Tuesday, Lightening picked up an empty plastic mickey of Alpinbitter and a pair of old black socks outside the tent.

Across the street, kids yelled and laughed during recess at Whitehorse Elementary.

A beer can lay nearby. “Someone had an eye-opener this morning,” she said.

Beside the tent’s gaping door lay a square Tupperware container filled with rice and some brown soupy mix.

“Someone’s bringing her food,” said Lightening.

This summer, Peterson came into some money – a settlement for an accident involving a crane years ago, said Lightening.

The money should have solved her housing woes, because Peterson planned to buy a motor home.

Her granddaughter, Trish, and Trish’s boyfriend Levi Blanchard helped Peterson find a used one.

“It was her dream, and she was so excited because it had two beds and it even had dishes,” said Lightening.

Peterson said she paid roughly $20,000 for the motor home, said Lightening.

And, she asked Lightening to drive it downtown for her.

“But I wanted to find a place to park it and make sure it had insurance first,” she said.

Then the motor home went missing.

Trish and Blanchard stopped returning Lightening’s calls.

Mabel filed a report with the police.

“But I don’t think it’s a high priority for them, compared to other crimes that are going on,” said Lightening.

Part of the problem is that Peterson never saw any paperwork after handing the money over, said Lightening.

Blanchard did not return phone calls before press time.

“I don’t even know if there was a transfer of ownership for the motor home,” she said.

It may not even have been purchased.

“Mabel never even got to sleep in it,” said Lightening.

Now, with winter fast approaching, Lightening is at wit’s end.

A bed at the shelter isn’t enough, because the building closes from 3 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on weekdays and is closed all day Saturday and Sunday.

“And I don’t want to put her out all day in the cold,” said Lightening.

Peterson can barely move.

“We got funding for a new walker with wheels for her,” said Lightening.

“So she can sit on its little bench and the guys can push her somewhere.”

But when it’s minus 30, there’s nowhere for her to go.

“Mabel can’t make it to the library anymore,” she said.

“I know Tim Hortons used to let her sit there.”

But the homeless have a tough time in the winter.

“They get booted from pillar to post,” she said.

Lightening and the Salvation Army have been considering trying to keep the lounge that’s connected to the shelter open all day from November to April.

“We could put a TV and some couches in there,” she said.

“But with two 12-hour shifts on weekends and five 5.5-hour shifts during the week, plus the additional heating, it would cost the Salvation Army an extra $53,000.”

Most nights the shelter’s 10 beds are full.

“And sometimes we have as many as 20 people sleeping on chairs,” said Lightening.

People pull three chairs together to sleep. “But we only have so many chairs,” she said.

Peterson isn’t the only senior at the Salvation Army, and as she sends people out in the cold drizzle, Lightening feels responsible.

“We’re doing palliative care here, which isn’t our mandate,” she said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

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