Yukon Party stalls on helping homeless

If the Yukon Party government wants to help the territory's hardest to house, it has a funny way of showing it. On Wednesday, territorial politicians stood to debate a motion, supported by the Liberals and NDP.

If the Yukon Party government wants to help the territory’s hardest to house, it has a funny way of showing it.

On Wednesday, territorial politicians stood to debate a motion, supported by the Liberals and NDP, that called on the government to work with a coalition of nonprofits that want to build a 20-unit supportive housing project for Whitehorse’s homeless, hardcore alcoholics.

Government MLAs’ response? Politics as usual.

They bragged about past achievements, heaped blame on the opposition parties, and did their best to avoid talking about the matter at hand.

Then they watered down the motion so that it no longer meant anything and used their majority to pass it.

None of this looks very promising for Whitehorse’s homeless alcoholics.

The plan in question would give them a place to live – and drink.

It’s a controversial solution. But, by taking these people off the circuit between the drunk tank, emergency room and temporary shelter, governments elsewhere have found they save money. And lives.

The underlying approach is called “housing first.” It challenges the conventional wisdom that many homeless people choose to sleep on the street, and that quitting drinking is primarily a matter of willpower. It turns out that coping with alcoholism and its attendant ills is a lot easier with a roof over your head.

The Whitehorse proposal is the work of nonprofits operating under the banner of the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition. They’ve applied for federal money that’s being administered by the Yukon Housing Corporation.

The project’s total cost is expected to be $1.8 million. The housing corporation is being asked to front half of that. The remainder would be leveraged from a bank once government funding is in place.

Wednesday’s motion, put forward by Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell, called on the government to support the coalition’s efforts and ensure the project is approved.

“The key message here is that we don’t need to study this issue endlessly,” said Mitchell.

Jim Kenyon, the housing minister, responded by accusing the Liberals of wanting to micromanage the Crown corporation. It’s up to the corporation’s board to approve or reject the project, he said. “That’s not the responsibility of the minister.”

But the housing corporation already collaborates with Habitat for Humanity, noted the NDP’s Steve Cardiff. He wondered why the corporation couldn’t do the same with the coalition.

The corporation has already awarded $1.5 million to a group that wants to build a 14-unit home for Yukoners with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. But the coalition’s proposal is being held up.

According to Kenyon, that’s because the proposal had “no information of what to build, how to build it or how to pay for it.”

Kenyon’s wrong on all three counts.

The coalition already has architecture plans drawn up for the facility. They’ve found builders willing to do the job for a cut rate. And they have a plan for how to pay for it, but that depends on government support.

Kenyon’s comment led Cardiff to wonder whether the minister had bothered to read the plan.

It envisions a 20-unit building would stand on Sixth Avenue near Whitehorse’s clay cliffs that would look a lot like a hotel, with some important differences.

Like at a hotel, the building would have a central entrance and a front desk to allow staff to keep tabs on clients and guests. Each client would have a small room with a kitchen and bathroom.

Unlike a hotel, the ground floor would include office space for addictions counsellors, visiting nurses and other frontline workers, as well as a communal kitchen and other common spaces.

Drinking would not be allowed in much of the building. But what clients do in their rooms is their own business, provided they don’t fight.

The coalition would need an annual operating grant of $250,000 from Health and Social Services to pay workers at the facility. “What would they cut to get this?” Kenyon asked of the Liberals. “Where would the money come from?

“You can’t just print money. It’s got to come from somewhere.”

Some social assistance money could be redirected to the project, said Mitchell, “because, in effect, it would act like rent.” But the proposal also requires Health and Social Services to provide an operating grant.

Kenyon amended the motion so that it only spoke in vague terms about working with affordable housing advocates. He deleted any mention of the “housing first” approach.

These changes took “the heart and soul” from the motion, said Mitchell, explaining why he couldn’t support the changes. Neither could Cardiff, who urged government ministers to make some show of support.

“Just come out publicly and say you support it. That’s all we need,” he said.

Instead, Justice Minister Marion Horne used her time to brag about Yukon’s hot economy.

Health Minister Glenn Hart, meanwhile, claimed that the territory needs to gather more statistics on homelessness.

The coalition’s members disagree. And they ought to know: they’re the people who work up close with homeless alcoholics. Organizations involved include the Salvation Army, Blood Ties Four Directions, Skookum Jim Friendship Centre and the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

The capacity of their proposed project - 20 – is based on the number of regular clients at the emergency shelter.

Neither Horne nor Hart made any mention of the coalition’s proposal during their speeches.

Kenyon’s speech dragged on for three and a half hours, by Mitchell’s count. Much of it was a recitation of the government’s expenditures on affordable housing.

At one point, Kenyon gloated over how the past Liberal government was the “shortest-lived majority government in the history of the Commonwealth of Nations.”

He boasted of how the Yukon Party has spent $100 million on affordable housing projects, while the Liberals had spent “zero.”

But he didn’t talk much about the proposal at hand, other than offer a variety of excuses about why it remains stalled.

Cardiff wasn’t impressed. “The minister hasn’t been constructive with the consistent criticism, sniping, excuses, deflective language and repetitive language,” he said.

Neither was Mitchell. “I said I would be constructive today and that’s what I did,” he said. “I did not criticize any government and I certainly didn’t criticize any ministers. That was the approach I had hoped we could have today.”

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