Original Published 12:33 Jun 04, 2022

By Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Hotels are emptying themselves of the homeless people who filled their rooms all winter. Now with COVID-19 restrictions dropping, hoteliers are looking forward and opening their doors to visitors from around the world.

People living in hotels around the city were asked to move out by June 1, according to the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. The eviction notices were delivered in April. Other motels quietly shifted from monthly rates to daily rates, far exceeding residents’ ability to pay, and easily exceeding the shelter allowance for those on social assistance.

On May 31, several non-governmental organizations, all with an interest in housing issues, met with the Yukon government’s department of Health and Social Services, Yukon Housing Corporation (YHC) and the City of Whitehorse to discuss the auditor general’s report on housing that was released days earlier. Later, the focus shifted from the dire warning in the report to the emerging crisis on Whitehorse streets.

Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, told the News on June 1 that “the numbers of people who have nowhere to be is growing dramatically, and today is a big, bad day for lots of folks.”

Alarm bells grew louder when people started seeking camping gear.

“The city is worried about people who may be camping in the clay cliffs, because that’s sometimes where people come to be when they don’t have a suitable place,” said Craig.

Now that the escarpment area is blocked off, dislocated indivuals and families are seeking other options.

Late in the day on June 2, the Yukon Status of Women Council sent a letter, signed and supported by 12 other non-governmental organizations, asking city council to take extraordinary measures to ensure that homeless people can find safe spots to live. For women and children especially, the Whitehorse shelter is not a safe place, advocates said.

The letter asks for a special and temporary provision under the Parks and Public Open Space Bylaw to allow camping at Robert Service Campground and Takhini Arena.

It also asks that “certain green spaces, church parking lots and other parcels of privately-owned land are enabled to allow coordinated, centralized or scattered site camping.”

Concerns from high up

Craig attended the May 31 meeting with government officials and said the severity of the situation was recognized.

The auditor general was clearly concerned as well, long before the hotels were booked by travellers and the clay cliffs slipped.

The auditor general’s report concluded that the Yukon Housing Corporation and the Department of Health and Social Services had failed to provide vulnerable Yukoners who were homeless or at risk of homelessness with access to housing that meets their needs.

Hotels and motels are not an answer, nor are temporary camps. Neena MacKinnon is the coordinated access coordinator with the Safe at Home Society and says she doesn’t like to refer to hotel rooms as housing units.

“We know it’s not in most cases, it’s not even adequate. They don’t have a way to cook food or store food or something people have told us, is that they don’t even have a phone, because it’s a monthly rate.”

The Yukon Convention Bureau said hotel rooms in Whitehorse are impossible to find, and many are going for upwards of $300 per night and that the loss of 82 rooms at the Coast High Country is being felt by travellers. Craig said that the motels where many people wintered are now $129 to $159 a night.

Craig and MacKinnon both identified that the loss of the Chilkoot Trail Inn in January changed things considerably. Most of those residents had settled in for the long term, but when the building was deemed uninhabitable many of those residents were relocated to the Riverview Hotel, which is where they lived until June 1. Many of those same people are looking for places again.

Colin McDowell, a vice-president at the Yukon Housing Corporation, points to new affordable units that will be coming on-stream soon. McDowell said he expects that the 47-unit mixed housing project at Fourth Avenue and Robert Service Way will be accepting new residents by August and September of this year. McDowell also cited new units under construction and in the works in the Whistle Bend subdivision.

The Cornerstone project, built by Opportunities Yukon (formerly Challenge Disability Resource Group) at the end of Main Street, will have filled 45 supportive and affordable units rental apartments for one-person occupancy by June 15, according to executive director Jillian Hardie.

But right now, MacKinnon says “We recognize that there are no other options with 195 people currently experiencing homelessness, and no hotels for them to stay at.”

“We expect that it [camping] is going to happen; we’re not supporting that there should be an encampment or in-town camping, but there’s really nowhere else, other than camping.”

Who’s counting?

The auditor’s report states that from August 2019 to August 2021, an average of 75 households per month were living in hotels.

A spokesperson for Health and Social Services, Clare Robson, said that in April, 53 households used their social assistance benefits to pay for hotel accommodation.

The Safe at Home society reported that 46 people on their by-name list were living in hotels in mid-May. The by-name list only contains those people who have requested to be on a list to receive housing.

Yukon Housing Corporation’s wait list for social housing is cited at 463 for 2021 in the auditor’s report.

Jayme Curtis, acting manager at the Whitehorse shelter, said that they only count beds occupied per night. They do not report the frequency or duration of stays by any one person.

Craig says more people are entering homelessness than exiting.

Aja Mason of the Yukon Status of Women Council said on June 1 that Indigenous women are overwhelmingly at the highest risk of experiencing homelessness.

MacKinnon says a case management system for tracking homelessness has been available for agencies, including the Yukon government since 2019. The system helps manage, track and support consenting homeless and vulnerable people by using unique identifiers. It can aggregate data from different agencies and provide a comprehensive picture of what supports are needed where. The territorial government’s use of the system is limited due to privacy concerns, in spite of recommendations from federal agencies.

Clear a path

The letter submitted to Whitehorse city council concludes saying: “As community partners, we are actively committed to working alongside all levels of government to use all resources at our disposal. We have a collective opportunity to be proactive and to demonstrate that we see and hear the urgent needs of individuals and families impacted by homelessness.”

Craig puts it a little more directly and asks “please get out of the way or step up or whatever it is that that any of us need to do in order to support people who no longer have even a hotel room to live in.”

This item reprinted with permission from Yukon News, Whitehorse, Yukon