First, her furnace stopped working. Then her wood stove filled the home with smoke. Eventually, the Elder placed a call for help from her Fort Smith home.
She called the town’s fire department, where director of protective services Adam McNab answered the phone. He and a colleague, unsure if a fire was occurring amid the other concerns, decided to pay a visit.
“There were some air quality concerns. We were using our breathing apparatus to make sure we were safe ourselves, and we had a gas detector that was showing an excess amount of carbon monoxide in the air,” McNab recalls of their initial inspection.
He tried finding a tradesperson who could help but, in the evening on the Christmas long weekend, nobody could be found.
“It was then that I expressed a need to find her a safe place to stay,” McNab said.
For hours, the town’s director of protective services tried to find somewhere for an Elder – with no family option available – to go when their home is no longer safe.
“We contacted the health centre, and it’s not really within their mandate to take people looking for shelter,” said McNab.
“We contacted social services and they indicated that it is not within their mandate to deal with Elders, or adults for that matter. They’re primarily there for children, at least the after-hours number that we called.
“We contacted the women’s shelter and their mandate is really directed toward women in need, because of domestic violence and things of that nature. They did indicate that they would try to accommodate people in an emergency situation, but they were full at the time.”
The women’s shelter, Sutherland House, said it might be possible for her to sleep on a couch. But when McNab presented that option to the Elder, she decided she was uncomfortable with that idea and preferred to stay at home, since she was now worried about pipes freezing and other damage. Ultimately, she insisted on staying.
McNab informed the RCMP, “just from a wellness standpoint,” made sure the broken heat sources were fully disconnected to prevent any more concerns like carbon monoxide, and – at four o’clock in the morning – he left the Elder in her unheated home in -27C.
A gap in service?
What should be available to someone in that situation, and what actually is available to someone in that situation?
McNab said the apparent lack of options was scary for both the Elder and for him as a municipal worker tasked with trying to help a resident.
“I was certainly concerned for her well-being and I felt bad that I couldn’t find any options for her,” he said.
“If we respond to the home of an Elder for an emergency that renders their home uninhabitable in the middle of the night, and they don’t have any family or resources of their own, who do we turn to?”
The problem was raised at a meeting of Fort Smith’s councillors last week, where senior administrator Cynthia White said the incident demonstrated “a huge gap in service in our community and across the territory.”
White worries that the services available to Elders are often overlooked at territorial level, particularly the accessibility of help.
“There were no services available for this person,” White told councillors, praising McNab for devoting many hours overnight to finding any solution he could.
“It’s not his job to find a tradesperson. It’s not his job to find housing for this elderly person. He did it because it’s the right thing to do. However, the services that should be available for the elderly are not available,” White said.
“There are many Elders in our territory and many others in our community who don’t have the resources. They don’t know who to call, they don’t have family, they have no understanding of the system in which they’re working. And yet there’s nobody available to them to support that.”
Housing NWT has helpline
The NWT government, though, says services are available to people in that situation – even on Boxing Day in Fort Smith – if you call the right number.
On an ordinary day, Housing NWT spokesperson Tami Johnson said by email, a homeowner in the Elder’s situation could use the agency’s emergency repair program by calling their local housing office. That gets them up to $10,000 in a forgivable loan to bring in a contractor and get repairs done quickly. The program was recently changed so that it’s easier to access, Johnson wrote.
She said there’s also emergency homelessness assistance funding that could, for example, be used to fund travel to Hay River, home of the shelter that currently serves Fort Smith and other South Slave communities.
Obviously, those are not necessarily solutions in the dead of night, particularly at one of the hardest times of the year to find an available tradesperson or someone to drive you to Hay River.
But Johnson said Housing NWT also operates an emergency hotline – 1-844-698-4663 – that is available around the clock on any day of the year, and which she said the GNWT had tried to advertise as widely as possible in the run-up to Christmas.
If someone calls that line, Johnson said, “the on-call Housing NWT staff immediately sends the request for service to the right people.”
That could mean Housing NWT finding a contractor to get the repairs done or getting a local manager to figure out public housing, Johnson continued, or staff on the line helping with emergency funding. In a situation like the one on Boxing Day, she said, staff can loop in other agencies “to ensure the needs of the individual are met.”
Yet McNab’s experience suggests that he did not know such a line was available, and neither perhaps did the agencies he contacted that night, none of which appeared to refer him to that service. He told Cabin Radio he had since been made aware of a housing number to call, but remained under the impression that the service was only available during weekday office hours.
As for the Elder in her unheated home, McNab says that the next morning – after about three hours’ sleep – he began calling tradespeople again. This time, he found someone able to come in a hurry.
“In the end,” he said, “we did manage to get her some help.”
Are tiny homes a solution?
White says there’s a broader problem: Fort Smith has no shelter of its own.
“We have many people who are underhoused, who are couch-surfing, and we have no support from the territorial government to create such a facility here,” the town senior administrator told councillors at last week’s meeting.
“However, in Yellowknife, the Government of Northwest Territories funds that facility. So it’s not the City of Yellowknife that’s responsible for creating a homeless shelter, it’s the Government of the Northwest Territories.
“If we had a shelter, we could have taken this person to the shelter. We have lots of people that need to be housed but we have no way to do that, because they don’t qualify for housing because of addictions issues – but also we have no shelter for them.”
Johnson said Housing NWT just started working with Fort Smith on a community housing plan and has met with various organizations in the town “to discuss the potential restarting of a shelter program” or, alternatively, building tiny homes to help vulnerable people.
Using tiny homes is an approach that Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, who represents Fort Smith and the nearby First Nations, has urged the territory to support multiple times in the NWT legislature.
Most recently, in October, Martselos called tiny homes a “real solution to fighting homelessness, rather than just renting a building, as it would give homeless people some dignity and confidence back into their lives.”
Ministers have called the project, being led by the Salt River First Nation (of which Martselos was formerly chief), “potentially very innovative” – but said last year a firm proposal wasn’t in place.
Last week, Johnson said federal funding would be available for either a shelter or a tiny homes project, and Housing NWT was prepared to assist the Salt River First Nation or anyone else in accessing that cash. She said the Salt River First Nation used to operate a shelter but it closed “due to lack of staffing and funding,” though she added both the First Nation and the NWT Métis Nation have since expressed interest in running programs “to support the vulnerable population in Fort Smith.”
“The GNWT alone cannot operate shelters throughout the NWT. Operating a homeless shelter requires a lot of support and input from the community and a strategy to recruit, train and retain staff,” Johnson wrote.
“Conversations are currently taking place to address this concern and determine what supports and services are best needed and suited to address this issue.”
Meanwhile, she said, homeowners need to make sure their furnaces are serviced and maintained.
“While Housing NWT provides assistance for such situations,” Johnson wrote, “it is not up to Housing NWT to ensure homeowners maintain their housing and are taking care of their homes.”