Security, fear, and a public housing system that doesn’t help anyone

Last modified: September 29, 2022 at 4:33pm

On many nights in Yellowknife, police vehicles, ambulances, and vans of security guards can be found outside some of the city’s apartment buildings.

These visitors are paid to address the symptoms of a systemic issue: how the city cares for the most vulnerable residents in its housing system. The last group – private security teams – are a relatively new addition.

Housing NWT, the Northwest Territories’ housing agency, has been paying for private security at Yellowknife public housing since 2020. This year, the scale of that operation – which was not publicized and has not been previously reported – has expanded.

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The bill could reach $800,000 this financial year “depending on requirements,” a Housing NWT spokesperson said.

The Yellowknife Housing Authority, an offshoot of Housing NWT that manages hundreds of public housing units in the territorial capital, began arranging for private security in June 2020.

In March this year, Northview – the territory’s biggest landlord and, by extension, its biggest purveyor of subsidized housing – also sought to increase security, choosing Risk Control Canada, a security firm based in Calgary, to address complaints in and around its residential buildings.

Northview is passing a portion of each security bill to Housing NWT.

“We have seen a shift where we are getting more calls, whether it’s about noise, health and safety risks, whatever the case may be,” said Eleanor Young, Housing NWT’s president.

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“Northview had identified some serious concerns and it brought in some security support. Because we sublet a number of units in their buildings, they had approached us for a cost share on that security cost, which we agreed to.”

Unsafe conditions inside properties owned and managed by Northview are a notoriously common complaint in the Northwest Territories. Tenants have won rulings over neglected basic upkeep and repairs, but most calls for help in building are the result of violence and disruptive behaviour.

While Young acknowledged that increasing security at buildings will not solve that problem, she says private security has helped to manage some of the challenges.

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“They were getting lots of fire alarm pulls, for example, things that cost money and time,” said Young. “And they were trying to find a solution to that. So by bringing in the security detail, they seem to be getting some of that under control, which was the goal.”

A Risk Control Security vehicle parked outside a Yellowknife housing block
A Risk Control Security vehicle parked outside a Yellowknife housing block. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
What appears to be a broken fire alarm at Yellowknife’s Sunridge Place, a Northview building, in September 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

A company representative confirmed what they termed an increase in “security-related incidents.”

“We felt this increase in security was necessary to ensure the safety of our residents and employees,” said Linay Freda, vice-president of operations for Northview, in an emailed statement to Cabin Radio.

Inside, residents keep their heads down

Inside Sunridge Place – a Northview-owned building in Yellowknife that contains a number of public housing units – two Indigenous residents who spoke with Cabin Radio say they feel trapped.

The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity over concerns for their safety, said they can’t afford to move in the current rental market. They say subsidized renters are making the building unsafe.

Events they described include an attempted mugging in the hallway outside their unit and a 2020 incident involving a man who broke into an apartment with an axe.

The still-to-be-repaired door to an apartment that was broken into with an axe in 2020. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

They say security has helped.

“Before, it was worse. We used to have people in the stairwells, drinking and partying it up, doing drugs. And worse, there are people who don’t look after their children. These people need help, they need to be institutionalized,” one said.

The residents say they keep their heads down and don’t talk to anyone in the building for their own safety. They expressed frustration at their perception of many of the other residents’ lifestyles.

“Their rent is paid, their power is paid, their groceries are paid, they get a free furnished apartment. No need to work,” one of the two said. “Any money they do have, they drink it up. They party day and night, they fight with each other.”

Outside: neighbours call for evictions

Keith Sanders and his wife live on the same street, 51A Avenue, across from Sunridge Place.

“We had nights where weren’t able to sleep at all. There was partying going on from two o’clock in the afternoon till 6am the following morning. Continuous, no break,” Sanders said.

“They don’t know how to speak quietly. They’re shouting at the top of their voices, using bad language, maybe eight or 10 people at a time.”

Sanders says he has tried all sort of ways to fix the situation. He once tried to establish a connection with one of the residents over his Jaguar.

“He’s perfectly amenable, thoughtful, intelligent. He was asking the right questions about the car. So I said, sit in it. Try it. I wasn’t going to let him drive it or anything but I thought, you know, we’ll go from here,” Sanders said.

They established that Sanders was welcome to let him know if the noise was getting too bad. But the truce was short-lived, Sanders added.

He believes drug dealers establish themselves in the homes of “weaker” residents and that, in this tenant’s case, “a group of users just take over his unit.”

While Sanders told Cabin Radio he’s enormously grateful for the hired security personnel, he says it still doesn’t help him or his wife get a full night’s rest.

“They come close it down and, the next hour or so, it will get quieter. And then they start up again.”

Sunridge Place in September 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
Balconies outside Keith Sanders’ home. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

Sanders says police sometimes present evidence at eviction hearings when particular units receive high numbers of complaints, which he said was helpful. In one case he followed, the tenants were evicted.

“And it was an immediate eviction, too,” he said. “But since then, we’ve been told on a couple of occasions that eviction notices are quashed from well up the tree, at the highest levels of the housing administration.

“Nobody is prepared to actually enforce rental agreements. That’s what really triggered me to go nuclear with this.” (Sanders has twice been interviewed by the CBC in the past two months.)

The NWT’s housing minister, Paulie Chinna, declined to comment for this article. In speaking with northerners who work inside the housing system, Cabin Radio understands evictions are often avoided at almost any cost because shelters already struggle to meet the homeless population’s needs and no other options currently exist.

Sanders has looked into legal action, met with Chinna and is set to meet with Jamie Fulford, the associate deputy minister of Housing NWT, later this week.

“We have suffered. My health has gone down markedly while this has been going on. I can stand for probably 90 seconds before my back goes into spasm and I can’t breathe,” Sanders said.

“We’re 71 and 76. We will die soon enough, thank you very much, but I have no intent on dying because of this situation. If my wife is being threatened, I’m going after anybody and everybody.”

Sanders, a retired architect, says he is willing to design a housing complex himself with built-in supports and coordinate with housing authorities, funding bodies and residents.

“The model is: we give housing to anyone who needs it, with no controls,” he said, characterizing the NWT’s public housing system.

“Children and youngsters from the communities come here, refuse to go home and demand housing. The federal government made a promise to Indigenous people that they would have free housing. This isn’t free, but it’s the next best thing.”

Who needs housing and why?

Both inside and outside Yellowknife’s public housing units, you hear similar sentiments. Experts say the tension, and aftermath, are in part because of the way the NWT’s system is set up.

Julia Christensen, a Canada research chair in northern governance and public policy, says she has spent years unpacking a myth that Dene, Inuvialuit and Métis people from across the territory descend on Yellowknife with a plan to exploit government services.

In 2012, a paper by Christensen examined why residents of smaller communities end up homeless in urban centres. That paper found relocation often begins with forceful, state-sponsored removal, such as incarceration in a Yellowknife jail or mothers following children taken into urban foster systems.

Other residents move from chronically underfunded areas still recovering from the legacy of genocide, where colonial policies have left few opportunities for jobs or housing, in the hope of finding work and a place to live. Many, Christensen found, would have preferred to stay in their home communities.

Even on arrival in Yellowknife, entering the city’s public housing system is by no means easy.

There is a waiting list of more than 300 people. Public housing and subsidies are awarded through a points-based vulnerability assessment that provides additional points for circumstances that might place someone at increased risk of homelessness. If you’re a veteran or a senior, for example, that scores extra points.

Steps outside Sunridge Place. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

As a result, the people who make it into Yellowknife’s public housing system are, generally speaking, already facing almost every barrier there is.

Residents accessing subsidized housing are almost exclusively those with complex needs who would be better served in the kind of culturally sensitive, health-centred affordable housing that simply doesn’t exist in Yellowknife.

“We don’t have permanent supportive housing outside of, say, seniors’ homes,” said an NWT housing expert who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about their work. (After this report was first published, the city’s Spruce Bough housing program clarified that it does offer 40 placements in permanent supportive housing.)

“There are a lot of people who will never be able to just live on their own, for a number of reasons. They are going to need support for the rest of their lives. And we just do not have that kind of service in Yellowknife.”

There are a few placements available in transitional housing, which aims to be a temporary stopgap on the way to independent living. But if you suffer a serious head injury in Yellowknife and suddenly don’t have the resources to go elsewhere or the ability to work, and your condition is permanent, you’re on your own.

“We don’t have a dedicated place for them to go, and so people with complex, complex needs, people with tri-morbidity – addiction, mental health needs, physical health needs – end up being neighbours with people who have no idea how to handle it,” the housing expert said.

“We’re seeing all kinds of evictions. It’s not sustainable. It’s not good for the neighbours. It’s not good for clients. It’s not good for anyone.”

Because the most vulnerable are prioritized for public housing services, new arrivals who don’t meet that description – but simply need a leg up in a challenging rental market – get stuck in a cycle of poverty that puts them at risk of developing more barriers.

“Some of the people who get evicted, it’s not even their fault,” the housing expert said.

“They might genuinely want to turn their lives around. They go for addictions treatment but then they come back and, walking down the street, they see Jimmy or whoever. And Jimmy comes over and invites himself in, or yells at the window until he gets let in. He eats all their food, invites his girlfriend and 10 people over, and next thing they know it’s a party.

“So it’s often not even the person whose name is on the lease who is directly responsible. Especially with the younger crowd. When you’re in that situation again and again, it’s hard to take that first step to get out of an addiction. And if you’re getting evicted, it’s like, yeah, sure, give me the bottle.”

What would a better strategy look like?

Indigenous people are eight times more likely to experience homelessness in Canada than the general population. More than 90 percent of Yellowknife’s homeless population is Indigenous.

A significant body of research has found that Euro-Canadian public housing approaches often aren’t a good fit for Indigenous residents. Instead, studies show that culturally sensitive housing, with wraparound support services, not only saves governments money but produces better health outcomes.

In British Columbia, the Indigenous caucus of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association created a For Indigenous, By Indigenous National Housing Strategy that discusses specific ways to address Indigenous urban housing needs that often aren’t acknowledged by government.

In NWT communities outside Yellowknife, funding increasingly places Indigenous governments and leaders at the helm of projects that address housing insecurity. Housing NWT has signed several recent agreements supporting housing strategies that are Indigenous-led.

But in Yellowknife, the system remains an unwieldy attempt at collaboration between the GNWT, the municipality, the federal government and various non-profits. It is intimidatingly complex for those interested in making change.

“We all get that this is a problem,” said the NWT housing expert.

“I don’t think there is anyone in Yellowknife who thinks this system is fine the way it is. But even the people who are currently running for city council, when you read some of their platforms or their ideas, there are so many where you just think: ‘If you had a better understanding of what was going on, you would understand what the road is that we need to be on.’

“It’s such a complicated system. And it doesn’t need to be.”


In our next report on this issue, we’ll look in detail at possible solutions. If there’s a solution you think Yellowknife is overlooking or that you’d like us to examine in more detail, contact our housing reporter.

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.