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Yukon Health and Social Services struggles to make problems disappear at Whitehorse emergency shelter

People under the influence welcome at shelter, drugs and alcohol are not. Low barrier guidelines surface in ATIPP disclosure
The Whitehorse emergency shelter at 405 Alexander Street on March 7. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

It is hard to tell if a person is saying no-barrier or low-barrier when talking about different types of emergency shelters. The phrase is usually used in a sentence about harm reduction, housing first, person-centred and trauma-informed. The nuance between the two phrases “no-barrier and low-barrier” can be easily missed.

“The [Whitehorse Emergency] Shelter operates as a low-barrier facility that can be accessed by clients who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, although no substance use is permitted on the premises.” This sentence, describing harm reduction activities that are to take place in the emergency shelter, is found in the financial payment agreement between Yukon Health and Social Services (HSS) and the relatively new operator of the emergency shelter, Connective.

The discovery that “no substance use is permitted on the premises” of the Whitehorse shelter, located on Alexander Street, may come as a surprise, due to the reported litany of incidents, deaths, calls to RCMP and complaints from neighbouring businesses.

So too, does the increased need of three to four paramedics who now staff the Paramedic Specialist Clinic 20 hours a day, seven days a week, according to a spokesperson from the Yukon’s department of Community Services. This service is not included in the $14 million Health and Social Services funding agreement with Connective for shelter operations.

Connective, a sprawling British Columbia non-governmental organization (NGO), is now the operator of five supported living programs in the territory – two with the department of Justice run out of the Corrections Centre, the housing first building on Wood Street, a residential resource program with the Yukon Review Board and the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.

High degree of risk in management of NGO funding

HSS’s funding agreements with NGOs came under fire in the 2022 Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the Yukon Legislative Assembly on housing for vulnerable people.

While the audit findings turned over a rock exposing some weaknesses in Yukon’s housing system for vulnerable people, the News discovered that the exercise of rolling that rock has turned up additional weak points in the system.

Both the auditor and HSS said the department had no way to tell if their funding to NGOs was actually contributing to the results they wanted, or not. The department contracted a consultant to examine their practices around managing their ever-growing pile of funding agreements for social support programs.

The ensuing report, titled NGO Agreement Management by Marsh and Associates, surfaced amongst the documents tabled in the Public Accounts Standing Committee on Housing on Jan. 31. It had been completed months earlier, but it was kept under wraps until it was due to be released to the standing committee.

Marsh’s review of HSS’s funding agreements concluded that a high degree of financial, client, and/or reputational risk likely exists for HSS as a result of these agreements.

The report cites a lack of clear roles, as well as a shortage of structured and standardized management methods, and notes that the tools used to manage the funding agreements are insufficient. He found that risks were not identified prior to agreements being put in place.

The Marsh report also noted that “the over-arching methods for establishing these agreements and for managing these agreements over time is fragmented and inconsistent.”

At the time the report was written the funding agreements reviewed totalled about $16 million for HSS. Before the report was released, another $14 million was added, with the transfer of the operations for the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter from HSS to Connective stretching until 2025.

Reporting requirements improved

As a result of this funding scrutiny, it appears that Health and Social Services may have clarified the expectations and reporting that underpin the operations of the shelter.

The News acquired four transfer payment agreements between Connective and HSS for the Housing First on Wood Street and the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter at 405 Alexander Street through ATIPP.

Between 2021 and 2022 the funding template became a little clearer, the overall number of pages decreased and the 2022 agreement with Connective for the shelter contained an attached reporting section with a detailed logic model and specific data tracking requirements.

Logic models are widely used in program development to clarify program expectations. The strength of a logic model is that it clarifies the logical sequence of program expectations over time. If homeless is the problem, then housing is the solution – then how do we get from homeless to housed? Logic models are also used in evaluations and can help improve programming.

The News learned that an evaluation assessing the operations of the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter was conducted between August and September 2022 by an outside consultant. A spokesperson for HSS told the News Feb. 15 that it will be publicly released later this year.

Substance use and addiction is a contributing factor in the homelessness equation, and yet, is barely mentioned in the documents the News reviewed.

Nobody is just homeless

In an attempt to understand the role of substance use on shelter operations, the News asked Connective for an approximate sense of the percentage of their clients who suffer from substance use disorders. Their written response follows.

“The primary focus for shelters is to bring people indoors to get warm, access food and get the support they need to move into housing,” wrote Liz Vick, vice president of Connective on March 3.

She went on to say that “any speculation of the characteristics of the people who use the shelter – along any lines of classification, would be just that, speculation, which of course we aren’t willing to do.”

Understanding risk factors

People in the Whitehorse Point in Time Count 2021 were quite open about circumstances that contributed to their difficulties securing stable housing. Sixty-four per cent admitted to having a substance use disorder. Mental health conditions came in at 47 per cent, medical conditions and physical limitations were next in descending order, then Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder and cognitive limitations, each in the low 20 per cent, followed by people with an acquired brain injury at 17 per cent. About 112 to 117 people responded of the at least 151 people who experienced homelessness on the night of April 13, 2021. Forty-one per cent had been in the foster care system and 19 per cent attended residential school.

The Whitehorse shelter facility was first designed as a “high-barrier” shelter for the Salvation Army. The “change of mandate from high- to low-barrier shelter introduced many unanticipated problems,” according to the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter Final Report 2020-21 Community Safety Plan published on The plan identified some problems arising from the drop-in day use clients who use shelter facilities but don’t sleep there; the situation for neighbouring businesses with frightened customers; political decision-making; and the lack of definition around low-barrier housing.

Vick maintained in her email that “while we informally collect personal information that is volunteered by the individuals who access the shelter, this is not a requirement to receive supports & services.”

However, the funding agreement states a requirement for an intake assessment to “commence within 72 hours of admission and completed no later than one week of the shelter guests stay.”

The intake is to include a list of 13 characteristics such as demographics, source of income, health status, legal issues, supports, education and abilities. Two categories regarding “the need for substance use and harm reduction supports,” and another, which refers to health status and needs for care could also be viewed as pertaining to substance use disorders.

Connective is also required to maintain an information management system, collect data, keep documentation regarding the coordination of care and submit reports to HSS.

These reports will be available through the territory’s Access To Information and Protection of Privacy process. However, if Connective’s Annual Report on Housing First FY22 is any indication, the number of people who die, and the number of alcohol and drug related incidents will be redacted by HSS prior to the document’s release for publication.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at