Yukon Party misses homelessness forum, plays catch up

Yukon Housing's waitlist has hit an all-time high - more than 180 people - and it still has upwards of 30 units sitting empty, says Laurie MacFeeters.

Yukon Housing’s waitlist has hit an all-time high – more than 180 people – and it still has upwards of 30 units sitting empty, says Laurie MacFeeters.

The units have been under repair for more than a year, said the Anti-Poverty Coalition member.

“So Yukon Housing clearly can’t build an apartment building – look how long it is taking them just to repair damaged units,” she said.

MacFeeters was speaking at a public housing forum on Monday night hosted by NDP Leader Liz Hanson.

The room at the Francophone association was packed, with concerned citizens spilling into the hall.

“Business can’t attract new employees,” said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp. “Because they can’t find them places to live.”

Karp would like to see the city and the territory release land to the private sector.

“Because the government obviously can’t resolve the issue of homelessness,” he said.

While Karp wants to identify areas of growth, see the rental market restored and is pushing for a new landlord and tenant act, others at the meeting wanted simpler solutions.

“Let’s get creative,” said Anti-Poverty housing task force head Bill Thomas.

“Let’s build pocket housing.”

The idea is to get a lot of tiny units up fast.

“I’ve been talking to builders who could get units up in under a month, here,” said Thomas.

“It doesn’t have to take two to three years.”

Pocket housing units are only a feet hundred square feet, if that.

“I’ve even seen 84-square-foot units on wheels,” he said.

“Then you could say, ‘There goes John, pushing his house down the street, he’s moving to his summer property.’”

Even modular homes would work, said Thomas.

“The Alberta government got 350 modular homes to Slave Lake (after the recent forest fire) and they did it in a matter of weeks.”

If Valleyview went up in flames, you can bet they would replace those homes immediately, added Hanson.

“So if we treat everyone equally, we should be finding homes just as quickly for everyone who’s homeless right now.”

If Yukon Housing is having so much trouble repairing its empty units, maybe it could get carpentry students to help out, said former city councillor Jan Stick.

“If we need more workers because there is so much construction, then let’s look at apprenticeship programs.”

During the Canada Winter Games, the whole community worked together, said Yukon Human Rights Commission executive director Heather MacFadgen.

“People opened their homes and had rental suites – they got behind making it work.”

Through that homestay program roughly 200 people were housed, added former NDP premier Piers McDonald.

Current Premier Darrell Pasloski opted to put up a ‘No Camping’ sign on the lawn outside the legislature where a tent city has sprung up to protest the lack of affordable housing in Whitehorse. (See story page 3.)

“The government wants it moved because it’s a reminder of their failure,” said Hanson.

“I’m just back from university and can’t find a place to live,” said Anna Crawford, who’s considering pitching her tent next to the others at the tent city.

“Right now, I’d have more security going to work in the bush and living in a wall tent,” she said.

Crawford’s also considering becoming a student again, just so she can live in the dorms at Yukon College.

“When our young people come back from school we need to ensure they can find an affordable place to live,” said Hanson.

“Otherwise they will be living with their parents forever.”

There are people with little kids living in tents, said Dennis Murray.

“We need to make sure they find a place before winter.”

Murray mentioned the price of gold – $1,500 an ounce. “But we’re not getting any royalties,” he said.

“How about we get those royalties and put 10 per cent of them toward housing?”

In the meantime, the Westmark Klondike has 98 rooms that sit empty all winter and it’s for sale, said Murray.

Another resident wanted to see smaller, denser downtown lots.

“Houses are too expensive, not just for the homeless, but for at least a third of the people who work here,” he said.

“The city needs to change the zoning to half the minimum lot size and half the minimum house size.”

That would work, said city planner Mike Ellis, who also attended the meeting.

“With pocket housing you could fit eight houses on a lot that currently is only zoned for one or two,” he said.

“This is something we need to look at when we rewrite the zoning bylaw.”

The city has already made some changes to accommodate hostels, rooming houses and garden suites, he added. (See story page 4.)

Whitehorse also needs a youth shelter, said Boys and Girls Club executive director Dave Blottner, who has been lobbying the Yukon government for the past six years.

“We are seeing youth couch-surfing and trading sexual favours for a warm place to sleep,” he said.

Skookum Jim’s emergency youth shelter program – which only accepts youth between the ages of 17 and 20 – received over 700 calls last year, added its youth outreach co-ordinator, Chris Nash.

“We also need a women’s shelter,” said Yukon Status of Women’s Charlotte Hrenchuk, who’s been advocating for a shelter since 2007.

“It’s two women who started tent city,” she said.

“But the problem of women’s homelessness is largely hidden, because of survival sex.”

Hrenchuk knows of women who’ve gotten arrested in order to get housing – at the jail.

The Salvation Army shelter is full every night, said Captain Jeff Howard.

Its 14 beds are always in use and there are upwards of 20 more homeless who sleep in the dining room, he said.

Many of these clients need assisted living, he said.

But that’s not available in Whitehorse either.

“So what can I do?” said Tracy Wallace, who attended the meeting out of concern.

“As I sit here listening, I feel completely powerless,” she said.

“I don’t know what action I can take to make change.

“I am going to wake up tomorrow morning with no idea what to do.

“I don’t even know who is accountable – all the departments and ministers play off one another and pretend someone else is responsible.”

Wallace has been talking to hotels in town about offering some free rooms to the homeless as a pay-it-forward gesture. And the High Country Inn and the Westmark were receptive, she said.

“Maybe this will shame the government.”

In the meantime, Wallace planned to make her way down to the tent city in the morning, to see if there was anything she could do to help

Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell and Hanson both recommended writing letters, or meeting with government ministers.

There were no Yukon Party ministers at the public meeting.

But two days later, Health and Social Services minister Glenn Hart announced the Alexander Street Residence will soon be used to house 15 to 20 clients – a suggestion that was made at the public meeting.

After renovations are completed in the coming months, the residence will be used for clients whose placements can be challenging due to their varying needs, said a government release issued late Wednesday morning.

Current residents of Alexander Street will move into the new seniors’ complex at Waterfront Place, adjacent to the Whitehorse Health Centre.

Contact Genesee Keevil at