Enterprise fire victim Natasha Cleary says mixed messages and miscommunication from the N.W.T. government left her family with a week’s notice to leave their emergency accommodation. 

With few alternatives amid a years-long Hay River housing crisis, the Cleary family – Natasha, husband John and their five kids – say they have no idea where they’ll go next.

“Don’t give people false hope. Be straight up and say if you’re going to support them or not, so people can figure out what they’re going to do,” said Cleary. 

“It’s the middle of winter and we can’t just be kicked out with nowhere to go.”

The Clearys, who lost their home in August’s Enterprise wildfire, have been staying at Hay River’s Castaway Cottages for the past two months through an arrangement with the N.W.T.’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which oversees emergency management and disaster assistance.

Last Friday, they received a notice from Maca terminating their accommodation on November 30. 

Natasha Cleary says the notice contradicts correspondence from other GNWT officials who informed the family their stay would be extended until the end of January. 

At a meeting in October, former Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson says he was assured by Shane Thompson, the minister responsible for Maca, that the Cleary family would receive emergency accommodation until the end of January.

“When I talked to the minister, he indicated that no, it wasn’t the end of November, it was the end of January they were good to,” said Simpson. “I said, well, that’s not good enough.”

Aftermath of miscommunication

Hay River is no exception to the N.W.T.-wide housing crisis. With the family’s home having burned, Natasha says the financial strain involved in staying in the North this winter will be immense.

Among other things, she says the family had to replace essentials like winter clothing and gear for children aged one, three, five, six and 10. 

“I explained to the minister that they’ve got a family, they’ve got kids, they’re going to school, and there’s nothing to rent in Hay River,” Simpson said. “I said we’ve got to make sure that they get an extension beyond the end of January and probably into June or July, to give them time for their children to finish school.”

In earlier email correspondence with Cleary, Simpson confirmed his understanding that the family’s emergency accommodation would be extended until the end of January – with the possibility of further extensions.

“While Maca did give deadlines, I thought they were going to be extending it… so we weren’t really prepared to leave yet,” said Cleary. 

“Right now, we’re feeling pretty hopeless … I feel like everything is so miscommunicated right now. I don’t know what we’re supposed to be expecting from them.”

Maca spokesperson Jay Boast said in an email the department could not comment on correspondence between an MLA and a constituent or “alleged comments made by the minister.”

Where to turn?

Cleary’s mother, Tammy Neal, also lost her home in the wildfire. Neal worries what will happen to her daughter and grandchildren.

“Don’t kick them out on the street with nothing,” said Neal, adding that some form of displacement allowance or a financial settlement “before they asked them to be totally on their own” would help.

“Before you actually evict people, maybe you should make sure they have something else lined up,” Cleary agreed.

Maca spokesperson Boast said characterizing the family’s loss of accommodation as an eviction was not accurate. The department “has no landlord-renter relationship with those who are receiving short-term accommodation support,” he wrote.

Boast said the department had informed tenants on multiple occasions that their accommodation would end on November 30 – Thursday this week – and that “short-term accommodation support is consistent with the approach taken with prior disasters in the N.W.T.”

He said fire victims who were renting before they lost their home will have their accommodation covered until November 30, while homeowners without insurance will have emergency accommodation covered until January 15 with extensions determined on a case-by-case basis.

There’s a further complication. For the past three years, the Clearys say they were renting-to-own their home in Enterprise – a circumstance that they believe has left them in a no-man’s land of government support. 

Without official paperwork to qualify for insurance or documents to prove their home ownership agreement, the family are receiving government services as renters.

“Tenants are provided with accommodations assistance for a short term after evacuations end, and then are expected to make their own rental arrangements,” Boast stated.

Anyone needing more help once their accommodation support ends should contact the Department of Education, Culture and Employment “to determine eligibility for their programming or their local housing association for other options,” he added.

ECE offers income assistance that can spent on rent, but spokesperson Briony Grabke said the department does not assist with “locating or arranging accommodation,” a hurdle likely to be a challenge for people in the Clearys’ situation. 

According to the regulations governing the Income Assistance program, that money can’t be used “in respect of any transient living accommodation provided in a hotel, motel, hostel or other similar tourist establishment.”

When Cleary reached out to the housing authority in Hay River, she says they told her “they don’t do emergency housing – you have to apply like everybody else.”

The Hay River Housing Authority is a local authority overseen by Housing N.W.T., the territorial housing body. Housing N.W.T. told Cabin Radio it “does not have emergency housing support as part of its suite of programs.”

“As emergency housing assistance from Maca winds down on January 15, these N.W.T. residents are encouraged to apply for support through the Hay River Housing Authority,” Housing N.W.T.’s statement read. The size of the waitlist in Hay River was not specified, but amounted to more than 70 people in the town when an update was provided to the legislature in 2020.

The 20th Legislative Assembly concluded its swearing-in on Friday. A new premier and cabinet will be announced on December 7 – including a new minister of municipal and community affairs, a role in which Thompson remains until then.

Whoever that minister is, Simpson says they should abide by promises made and residents needing emergency housing should be “good until the end of January.”

The Clearys reached out to newly elected Hay River South MLA Vince McKay and Dehcho MLA Sheryl Yakeleya. Natasha Cleary says both have agreed to discuss the family’s situation at the legislature once it reconvenes. (The newly elected MLAs couldn’t be reached before publication. The GNWT declined to schedule an interview with Thompson or provide comment from him prior to the selection of a new cabinet.)

Simpson says he has informed Hay River North representative RJ Simpson – his son, who’s hoping to become the new N.W.T. premier – about the Cleary family’s situation.

“I’m hoping he sees it my way,” said the elder Simpson. “I told him it’s a simple solution. Just get Shane to say: Listen, they’re good until the end of January.”

Starting over ‘with nothing’

The Clearys feel as though initial offers of comprehensive support have “seemed to slowly dwindle away.” They’ve since been searching for affordable housing in Hay River, with no luck.

Their latest attempt is an application for a private rental. “If we get denied there, I don’t really know what we’re going to do,” Natasha said.

“Housing in Hay River is impossible to find. Now, we’re scrambling. We had a week’s notice to find somewhere to take ourselves and our five kids.” 

John Cleary works in Hay River and the couple’s eldest children are enrolled in school there, so leaving the town would be a last resort for the family.

Neal worries for the health of her daughter’s family. She says one grandchild has been singled out at school as a fire victim, while Cleary says her kids are “struggling quite a bit.”

“My three-year-old, we were picking up the other kids from school one day, and she’d see smoke coming out of the chimney and she automatically assumed their school was on fire. She started losing her mind and crying,” said Cleary. 

“Every day she says ‘my bed burned and my toys burned,’ and she asks if where we’re staying now is going to burn.

“We’re trying to get our oldest into counselling because she’s the one that understands it the most. Bouncing around from house to house is stressful on them. It would be nice to just finally settle and begin to heal.”

“When you grieve the loss of your home, it’s similar to grieving a death. It’s serious,” said Neal. “Mentally it’s not healthy to worry all the time, be stressed out all the time, and not know where you’re going to stay tomorrow.”

Through the turmoil, Cleary says she admires the generosity of Hay River organizations, neighbours, family and friends.

“The community has been wonderful. They’ve offered support of any kind,” said Cleary.

“Everyone that has been affected has been sticking together and being there for each other. That’s the best in this scenario.

“Everybody lost their lives. They should have some help to be able to start over.”

By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 28, 2023 at 16:35

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories
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