The Yukon Department of Justice has taken the first public step towards creating a halfway house for women in the territory, a facility that advocates say is desperately needed.
The department issued a request for expressions of interest Aug. 7 for “proposed sites and program models for 24/7 supervised community housing for justice-involved women transitioning back into the community or in need of supportive housing while actively involved in justice-related matters.”
Currently, there’s only a supervised residential facility in the Yukon for men, located in a former unit of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) and run by justice advocacy group the John Howard Society. A previous facility, known as the Yukon Adult Resource Centre (ARC), was run by the Salvation Army.
“I think we’ve been acutely aware that this sort of programming has been available for men for quite sometime and hasn’t been available for women,” assistant deputy minister of justice Allan Lucier said in an interview Aug. 13.
“It’s been a topic of reports, it’s been (the) topic of commentary, particularly recently as we shifted the pattern for service delivery for justice-involved adult males … and that’s, I think, in part what brings us to seek through this expression of interest from individuals who would be interested in providing these services to justice-involved women in a non-custodial-type setting.”
According to Ashley Kurtz, a strategic initiatives and business advisor with Yukon corrections, the last time the territory had a halfway house for women was about 15 years ago. The ARC, she told the News, had previously hosted a program for women too, and, at one point, a retired social worker had opened up rooms in her own home for justice-involved women.
Whitehorse criminal defence lawyers Jennifer Budgell and Jennifer Cunningham, as well as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon executive director Wenda Bradley, said in separate interviews that a supervised housing facility for women was “long overdue.”
“I think it’s about time,” Bradley said Aug. 14. “It’s been a needed tool for women to help themselves and for the community to help women. It’s been a long time coming.”
Budgell and Cunningham both said Aug. 13 that they’ve faced difficulties in securing bail for women clients at the WCC because there was no safe or suitable address for them to go.
“For women who don’t have suitable housing with friends or family in the community, you basically hit a brick wall when putting together a bail plan because housing is central to any sort of bail plan, “ Budgell explained. “And whereas men could just apply to live at the YARC if they didn’t have housing in their community, women really hit a dead end and were forced, really to stay at WCC.”
Cunningham said she currently has two clients at the WCC she believes would be out on bail if a supervised housing facility for women existed in the Yukon. Besides allowing for bail, she said, a halfway house would also mean that women serving federal sentences and out on parole could come home and be with the families and communities instead of being placed in facilities Outside.
“We all know too that women are an afterthought in corrections and Indigenous women are disproportionately harmed by the systemic oppression in corrections and the lack of a halfway house has been part of that overall context,” Cunningham said.
Bradley, Budgell and Cunningham all said that they hoped there would be consultation with Yukon First Nations, women involved in the justice system, NGOs and legal advocates in the creation of the facility, expressing disappointment at what they said was a lack thereof when it came to moving the men’s facility to the old jail unit.
Lucier said he couldn’t, at the moment, offer a timeline for when the women’s facility would actually be created and operational, as that would depend on how many expressions of interest the department receives and how comprehensive they are.
“I would say in terms of my interest and I think the interest of justice, we want to see it as soon as possible, but we want to ensure that in the way we go about creating this, we’re doing it so that, well, one, we can’t miss-step and two, that we end up with a program and services and supports that meet those needs,” he said.
“So I think as quickly as possible is what we’re aiming for.”
The requests for expressions of interest close Sept. 1.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org