Too old to move

Mabel Peterson is a 70-year-old cripple who lives in a tent by the clay cliffs downtown. On Tuesday morning, she was lying under a dirty comforter,…

Mabel Peterson is a 70-year-old cripple who lives in a tent by the clay cliffs downtown.

On Tuesday morning, she was lying under a dirty comforter, wrapped in a sleeping bag on a mattress behind the tent’s patchy screen door.

It was two degrees Celsius and a light rain was falling on a tarp pitched over the tent on saplings.

Outside a pink fleece blanket was draped over Peterson’s walker.

A milk crate with a damp towel sat by the tent’s opening, a miniature (airplane-sized) empty liquor bottle lay on the ground beside it.

Despite the chill, Peterson was feisty.

“I’m not cold,” she said.

And she’s happy with the tent.

“Judy from the Salvation Army brought it,” she said.

It’s better than her old one.

Apparently nobody messes with the immobile senior, despite her vulnerable position.

“They wouldn’t dare,” said Peterson.

“They know me better than that.”

At first, she wouldn’t reveal her age.

“I’m old enough to know what I’m doing,” she said.

Beside her, a crusty can held the remains of some baked beans, there was salt, a small tub of margarine and a lidless Tupperware container with some mysterious red sauce at the bottom.

“I’m just about out (of food),” said Peterson, throwing an arm over her wrinkled, weathered face.

Most of the day, the elderly woman just lies in her tent.

“Sometimes I sit outside,” she said.

And every now and then she makes her way downtown.

“But she can barely move,” said concerned neighbourhood resident Robbie MacKay, who watches her hobble by.

“She barely moves three to four inches at a time.

“And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, how can anyone leave someone that crippled in the bush?’”

Peterson has been in the tent “since it warmed up.”

It was sometimes hard to understand the elder, but it was clear she was born in Aklavik, NWT, and sent to All Saints residential school for 13 years.

She later lived in Inuvik before coming to Whitehorse.

“I like Whitehorse,” she said.

“It’s God’s country, but it’s a little chilly.”

Peterson 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 a month,” she said.

“It’s not much to get by.”

There is someone (indistinguishable), “who works for Eskimos and should be helping,” she added.

“I have nowhere to stay.”

Peterson has a daughter in her 50s, her oldest, living in Inuvik.

She doesn’t know her mother is living outside in a broken tent.

And she has a son who’s trying to help.

“He’s going to DIA to find a place for me — what’s DIA?” she said.

When she found out it stood for the department of Indian Affairs, Peterson was confused.

“Why’s he going there?” she said.

“I could find a place,” she added.

“But it costs too much.”

And Peterson doesn’t get along with a woman at the Salvation Army.

“She’s stubborn and tough and I appreciate that,” said MacKay. “But it’s cold at night.”

She has a drinking problem, and that doesn’t help, he added.

If she got hurt crawling out of the tent to go to the bathroom, or if her muscles seized up when Peterson was out from under her blankets … “I’m worried about the elements taking over,” he said.

MacKay wanted someone to come with him to check on Peterson.

“Just to see if she’s still with us,” he said.

“My main concern is how can society leave someone crippled like that all by themselves?

“It’s hard on the heart.”

Peterson could apply for social housing, said acting director of Yukon Housing operations Shona Mostyn.

“And I imagine she’d be up a ways on the waitlist,” she said. “Where, I have no idea. I’d have to look at each and every other person on the waitlist.”

The last vacancy report, for the end of August, showed 20 seniors on the waitlist, said Mostyn.

“But I know we’ve allocated a couple of them, so it’s probably sits at about 18.”

Yukon Housing has 142 senior units, 193 nonsenior places and 42 rent supplements, which are rented from private landlords and used as part of its housing stock. And these are for both seniors and nonseniors, she said.

Rent is 25 per cent the gross income of each applicant, and heat and hot water are covered.

Peterson would move up on the housing waitlist because she’s low-income and has no housing, said Mostyn.

Yukon Housing takes into account each applicant’s health, affordability and social factors, she added.

And Peterson’s drinking wouldn’t rule out her chances for a place, said Mostyn.

“We do ask for references from individuals who apply and, if we know we have a situation like that, we try to work with it. We do have people in housing with drinking problems.

“And especially with seniors, we try to make it work as best we can — obviously it can reach a point where people aren’t able to maintain their housing — but we try to work with all of our tenants as best we can to make them successful tenants.

“However we also have a responsibility to other people who might live in the building to have a safe and quiet environment — it’s a balancing act.”

Yukon Housing doesn’t offer assisted living, but does house clients that live independently with homecare or support.

Someone from Social Services’ senior services unit should be working with Peterson, added Mostyn.

“Because, obviously, some of her issues are not just housing related, she seems to be having health and personal issues as well.

“Her circumstances are significant, her situation is quite severe.”

Health and Social Services has plenty of programs available for seniors, said spokesperson Pat Living, after hearing about Peterson’s situation.

“But we can’t force them to participate in those programs,” she said.

“So, if they choose not to access the services we have available, that’s their own right to make that decision.

“So, if they choose to live somewhere else, that’s their right. If they choose not to come to us for financial assistance, that’s their own choice.”

Also, if Whitehorse allows Peterson to remain in her tent, either because bylaw doesn’t know, or it knows but isn’t worried because she’s not posing a risk, then Social Services can’t force Peterson to move to supported housing, said Living.

“We just don’t have that right.”

On Tuesday evening, the News brought some bread, meat, fruit, yoghurt, muffins and juice to Peterson.

Still lying in the same spot, Peterson was happy to see the food, but also wanted some smokes.

Her tent door was now completely broken and hung open, exposing her to the rain that was pouring down, making puddles on the tarp by her entrance, where an old blue shirt acted as a soaking doormat.

Earlier, when MacKay went to check on her, he was relieved to hear muffled noises coming from the tent.

“I’m OK, I’m just coughing,” said Peterson, greeting him.

A fox had been to visit her.

Peterson wouldn’t say where the food came from, or if anyone checked on her.

“I don’t depend on people,” she said.

“I used to have a lot of good friends when I was younger.”

And where are they now?

“God knows,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, the News checked on her again.

It was minus two. There was fresh snow on Grey Mountain.

Peterson was asleep — the rise and fall of the sleeping bag revealed she was breathing.

The tent door was still wide open, and there was ice on the tarp.

Peterson wasn’t wearing a hat.