The Takhini Arena site at the top of Two Mile Hill is being considered as a contingency area for emergency camping, should it be required.
At Whitehorse city council’s June 6 meeting, interim city manager Jeff O’Farrell said city and Yukon government officials have identified the arena property and other options downtown as potential sites.
O’Farrell spoke during the meeting, following a presentation by Yukon Status of Women Council executive director Aja Mason and Safe at Home Society coordinated access coordinator Neena MacKinnon.
The advocates focused their presentation on a letter signed by 12 community organizations calling on the city to take extraordinary measures to address the immediate homelessness issues that saw people staying in hotels forced to leave June 1.
Options for those residents are extremely limited. Tenting has been an option for many in years past, but the city’s Robert Service Campground is closed for the season as the city has a new campground building being constructed there.
Tenting in other parts of town is prohibited under the city’s Parks and Public Open Space Bylaw, though previous summers did see some residents set up camp along the base of the escarpment downtown, a potentially dangerous situation this summer given the recent slides along the escarpment. Much of the escarpment base has been closed off due to safety concerns, with a large section of Robert Service Way shut since April 30 due to a large landslide that crossed the road.
“The clay cliffs have long been a space of refuge for people,” Mason said. “However, with each landslide, the risks to our city’s most vulnerable increases.”
Pointing to figures showing a growing homeless population in Whitehorse, Mason and MacKinnon called on the city to consider the four recommendations outlined in the letter sent to the city on June 2.
The recommendations call on the city to review and consider allowing the campground and Takhini Arena as centralized camping sites, as well as permitting scattered site camping in spaces like church parking lots and other privately owned land.
It was also recommended in the letter that harm reduction and trauma-informed training be provided to bylaw officers and frontline city staff in order to support a compassionate approach to addressing the emergency situation.
City staff later noted current training for bylaw services includes conflict resolution, de-escalating violent situations, Naloxone training (which would include harm reduction) and a First Nations 101 course.
The letter also points to the possibility of incorporating the Built for Zero Canada effort, a move to help end chronic homelessness, noting the by-name list (a voluntary list of people experiencing homelessness which aims to connect them with housing) has grown to 200 individuals, plus 60 children.
For its part, later in the council meeting, city administration said they are working closely with the territory’s department of Health and Social Services given the recent hotel evictions.
O’Farrell then highlighted Takhini Arena as a potential site being considered.
Krista Mroz, the city’s acting director of community services, said officials did look at the possibility for Robert Service Campground as well, “but there are a number of things standing in the way at the moment.”
Among them is that the entire campground is set to be turned over to the contractor building the new campground structure and the closure of a large section of the Millennium Trail due to the escarpment slides.
While the Robert Service Way road is expected to reopen after a sheet pile wall and berm is put in place to address future slides, the Millennium Trail won’t reopen until “all risk of further slides is abated” Mroz said.
“And that’s likely to be towards the end of the month, possibly longer, depending on how the remediation is going.”
Mroz confirmed that as city staff have been working to monitor the escarpment, including collecting drone footage over the area, there haven’t been signs of anyone camping there.
Council members questioned the possibility of allowing camping on private property, wondering how long it might take to change the zoning bylaw so that could happen.
Mike Gau, the city’s director of development services, said the bylaw stipulates tenting on private property cannot become an established use, suggesting the city would only look at it if there was a complaint.
“We may have to make that judgment call if we were to receive complaints. If, you know, there was a large number of tents and issues arising, perhaps we may make that determination,” he said. “But if there was just a tent here or there, I doubt there would be a complaint or the city would even know about it.”
Changes to the zoning bylaw to formally allow camping on private property would have to go through the standard zoning bylaw process, which can take a few weeks.
As efforts continue to address the situation, O’Farrell confirmed a meeting of Safe At Home’s community advisory board aimed at ending and preventing homelessness is scheduled for June 9. The city is part of that board and the matter will be discussed further at that meeting.
On June 7, Mayor Laura Cabott was also set to meet with Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee on the issue.
Cabott said after receiving the letter, she reached out to McPhee for a meeting “specifically on this urgent situation which is presenting itself.”
“I would be more than happy to to share what I can from that meeting and hopefully some concrete solutions or at least moving forward in a concrete way,” she said.
In an interview June 8, Cabott said a number of both short- and medium- term measures were discussed, though at this point both the city and Yukon government will be looking at what might be available and possible.
Questioned specifically about Takhini Arena, she said it is a possibility being looked at and there may be others that could be better suited.
Cabott indicated more details will likely be announced “in the next while”, though she could not say how long that will be.
“I’m quite hopeful,” she said of finding a place where people can sleep for the summer as a more long-term solution is pursued.
As she pointed out, while there are some unique circumstances this summer, it is a matter that arises each year and a long-term solution needs to be found.
She also stressed it is clear there’s a need to work more closely with community organizations and to get accurate data on the situation as efforts continue.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org