A Housing First project on Fifth Avenue and Wood Street in Whitehorse on Nov. 5, 2019. More than two months after Yukon government unveiled its Housing First project in downtown Whitehorse, announced plans for residents to begin moving in throughout the middle to end of November, the building remains empty. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Yukon government’s Housing First project sits empty

Residents had originally been scheduled to move in in November

More than two months after Yukon government unveiled its Housing First project in downtown Whitehorse and announced plans for residents to begin moving in throughout the middle to end of November, the building remains empty.

Health and Social Services spokesperson Pat Living confirmed in a Jan. 28 email that the 16-unit building at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street that was built to provide permanent housing to vulnerable people has not opened.

“We have experienced some delays in getting the building open,” Living wrote. “These have been in the setup of the building security and communication systems. Having these in place is important for the safety of both tenants and staff.

“We are currently finalizing staffing for the residence. As with the systems, it is important to have the right staff in place to support the tenants who will occupy the building and that has taken some time as well.”

She explained parts of the communication/security system were delayed in coming from Outside and there were also some issues in having getting internet into the building.

She said one or two staff will work at the building “depending on time of day and level of activity.” It was not made clear what the total number of staff employed to work specifically at the residence will be.

It will now be February before residents begin moving in on a staggered basis with outstanding issues expected to be resolved “shortly,” Living said.

“As much as we all would have wanted to see tenants in the units sooner, given the newness of this project and the fact that it is the first Housing First project, we want to ensure that it is done right,” she said.

Living also stressed the importance of “upfront engaging and working with our partners” on efforts like consultation with the neighbourhood, tenant selection and sharing of information.

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost was not available for an interview but in a statement expressed disappointment with the delay. She also stressed the importance of ensuring doing things right over a quick opening.

“I understand the department is finalizing safety and security systems as well as hiring at the residence, and are planning to welcome residents in the coming weeks,” the statement says.

“I have reiterated to my department the vital importance of this initiative and the need to introduce this service properly by making sure we have the supports and structures in place to allow for a successful transition for the clients and staff as well as surrounding neighbours.

“This kind of approach to addressing homelessness in our territory has never been undertaken before and it is more important that it is done right than that we get it done quickly. We remain committed to addressing homelessness in our territory through a housing first approach and we continue to work closely with our community partners to ensure that the housing first residence operates effectively to support Yukoners in need.”

The project was originally announced in November 2017 and expected to be completed by June 30, 2019 and cost $2.7 million.

In July 2018 it was learned the territory would be paying substantially more with the lowest (and ultimately winning) bid coming in at $3.91 million.

In a Jan. 30 interview the Yukon Party’s Brad Cathers argued that with design costs the building is now costing upwards of $4.3 million.

He said the Yukon government needs to be accountable and explain why officials announced it was opening in November when the actual opening now appears to be months away from that.

The project has been mismanaged from the beginning, given the delays and cost overruns, he said.

“We are disappointed,” he commented, noting the money spent on the building is Yukoners’ money and the territory deserves an explanation on the situation.

At the unveiling of the building in November 2019, officials said the 16 units could accommodate up to 20 residents, with some units available to couples.

Each unit is furnished and has a kitchen. Plans would see at least one staffer on duty around the clock 24/7.

“The staff will be trained to deescalate difficult situations and will be responsible for monitoring activities in and out of the building,” Frost said at the November “opening” of the building. “Staff will also be there to assist residents with daily living activities to provide life skills training and to provide referrals to other services as needed.”

Contact Stephanie Waddell atstephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com