The Challenge of supportive housing

If it's difficult to find housing in Whitehorse, it's almost impossible for those with special needs. "I've moved so much it ain't even funny," said Marsha McCormick. "It's hell on Earth.

If it’s difficult to find housing in Whitehorse, it’s almost impossible for those with special needs.

“I’ve moved so much it ain’t even funny,” said Marsha McCormick. “It’s hell on Earth.”

McCormick, who “struggled practically all (her) life” with mental illness, is one of hundreds of Yukoners who need supportive housing.

And that housing doesn’t exist.

“The need is just so incredibly intense,” said Rick Goodfellow, president of Challenge Vocational Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that offers support and employment opportunities to people with a range of disabilities and mental health issues. McCormick is one of its clients.

Her struggle with housing is typical, said Goodfellow.

Finding a safe and secure housing for clients is the No. 1 problem for Challenge, he said.

“We’ve got a real issue around people who need supportive housing,” said Goodfellow. “We get constant calls coming in asking what’s happening, because people are desperate, they’ve got no place to live.”

People like McCormick often end up at the Chilkoot Trail Inn, which has become the last resort for many.

The Chilkoot isn’t anyone’s first choice.

“It’s pretty shitty,” said Lyle Charles, McCormick’s son, who is also a Challenge client.

Charles also lives at the inn along with his girlfriend and their infant daughter.

He’s been trying to find a permanent place to live, but because he’s on social assistance he gets constantly rejected by landlords, he said.

For the last three months he has been on the waitlist for Yukon government housing.

With so many of its clients struggling to find a place to live, and neither the government or the private sector stepping up to solve the problem, Challenge is working on filling the gap.

“It has long been the dream here that we would provide living opportunities for the people that we work with,” said Goodfellow.

They’re now looking to turn that dream into reality.

With seed money from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Challenge has come up with a solution for its clients: a 24-unit supportive housing complex.

Goodfellow has been working on the project for three years.

Initially the plan was to renovate the building they currently own.

It used to be an autobody shop.

The entire thing, including the interior walls, is made of cinder blocks – which doesn’t lend itself to easy renovations.

In consultation with architect Tony Zedda they decided to tear the building down and start from scratch.

The building would include 24 units – 36 if the city relaxes height restrictions – with the Challenge offices and a small cafe on the ground floor.

The cafe would be open to the public during the day and would be staffed by Challenge clients.

At night, it would double as cafeteria and common space, providing balanced meals to building residents.

It’s based on similar initiatives in other cities.

Goodfellow and Zedda both travelled to Vancouver to scout out designs and talk to people who live in them.

After speaking with residents, they decided every unit should have its own bedroom.

“These aren’t folks who want to be shoehorned into a little box,” said Goodfellow. “The overwhelming thing that we heard from people was how proud it made them and the dignity that they had from having their own bedroom.”

The entire project is expected to cost $7.5 million.

Once they secure funding, they can start construction.

“It’s shovel ready,” said Goodfellow.

The government recently invited Goodfellow to present the plan to Premier Darrell Pasloski and some of his cabinet.

While no firm commitment was given, Goodfellow is heartened by the fact they were invited to make the presentation.

For McCormick, Challenge’s plan would give her the chance to get the kind of help and support she needs, and to live with a little dignity.

“People see us for what we are, not who we are,” she said. “I just want a home, and for my kids to have a decent home.”

Contact Josh Kerr at