The YWCA in the NWT has rejected allegations it is mismanaging hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations received in the wake of October’s Rockhill fire.

Several of those affected by the fire have suggested they did not receive the support they expected in the weeks that followed.

In particular, some of the 87 people displaced by the fire feel the public did not realize donated money would go to the YWCA’s operations, rather than directly to families who lost their homes in the YWCA’s Rockhill transitional housing complex.

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As of last week, the YWCA said $238,000 had been received in donations – with $87,542 in cash and in-kind donations already provided to tenants, and almost $70,000 in new furniture due to arrive this week.

The YWCA says rules governing charities mean the organization cannot simply hand money directly to affected families.

‘Really shitty’

“My mom was a victim of the Rockhill fire and they talk about supporting all kinds of stuff for the people who now have nothing,” Yellowknife resident Katie Prentice wrote in a public Facebook post last week.

“Besides a few gift cards (that were donated) she has not received any kind of help from the YWCA and the donations that they’ve received. My mom has received more help from friends directly contacting us to help her.

“It’s a really shitty feeling to know that people donated thinking that they are directly helping the families affected when they were actually donating to the organization’s funding.”

Read: Rockhill fire – Yellowknife family housing block devastated
Read: YWCA drops Fort Smith daycare after Rockhill fire
Below: Full transcript of our interview with the YWCA’s Lyda Fuller

Brenda Kowana, who lost her home in the fire, told APTN: “I don’t think [the public] know where the money went. [The YWCA] stated on one of their releases that furniture and beds were bought. OK. I am not happy with that, I want to see the receipts.”

Eugene Harris, also displaced by the fire, told the broadcaster: “There are still people from our building you can see posting on Facebook asking for stuff. Why are they asking for kids’ clothes when there is all of this money? They could easily give us a cheque each.

“We were paraded all over and used to raise this money and yet we basically never got it and never had any right to it.”

‘People are traumatized’

Lyda Fuller, YWCA NWT’s executive director, acknowledged a “general misconception” regarding the way cash donations to Canadian charities work – and admitted communicating with affected families, now spread out across a range of housing units in Yellowknife, was challenging.

“We are meeting the needs of people,” said Fuller. “We are making sure people continue to have access to food. We have gotten furniture for people, including ordering a whole truckload coming up from Edmonton that should be arriving this week.

“We have spent more than $100,000 on furniture alone, and another $39,000 on delivery costs for distribution of furniture in Yellowknife.

“I think it has been a challenge for us without a single building where everybody is living, to try to maintain the level of intense support we could give in the building. With people scattered across the city, it has been a challenge for us. We recognize that.

“Also, I think people are feeling traumatized from the fire and being uprooted from where they were living, and we can understand that.”

Charity confusion

Fuller stressed the YWCA, as a charity, cannot simply give money to individuals or families.

“We are a charity and have registered charitable status, which means the Canada Revenue Agency watches what we do,” she told Cabin Radio.

“They have guidelines specific to charities, and one of the things charities cannot do is give cash to what they call ‘unqualified donees.’

“I think people also get confused around whether this was a GoFundMe kind of page, and it’s not. When you give money to a charity, you give it to them to carry out their charitable purposes: which, for us, is housing people, helping them with food security, and helping them with all the things they need to stabilize their housing.”

Federal government guidance for charities, available online, states “transfers of money [to individuals] are not acceptable” in the course of a charity carrying out its activities. Only so-called “qualified donees,” which are almost invariably other charities, can receive funds from a charity like the YWCA.

Fuller said it had not occurred to her that anyone would expect money donated to the YWCA to be passed directly to families.

“If there was an expectation that people would be direct recipients of cash, that was lost on me, and also not possible without us jeopardizing our charitable status,” she said.

The YWCA states none of the donated money is being used to replace its own equipment lost in the fire, or to pay staff.

Federal building

Yellowknife’s Northern Arts and Cultural Centre will host a fundraiser for families affected by the Rockhill fire on December 4. It’s not clear if money raised at the event – for which tickets cost $40 – will go to the YWCA or another destination.

Acts appearing at the fundraiser include Welders Daughter, Priscilla’s Revenge, Ceilidh Friends, Natasha Duchene, Thelma Cheechoo, and Bella Dance.

Meanwhile, Fuller said the YWCA is hoping to receive federal assistance in reopening a transitional housing facility to replace the devastated Rockhill complex – which also served as the organization’s offices.

“There are some federal surplus buildings in Yellowknife and we have gone to Ottawa to meet with the federal minister, who was very interested in the fire and the impacts from that and what had been lost,” said Fuller.

“You can already see the impacts of [Rockhill] being gone: you can see women backing up in the shelter system and it will only get worse, because we get requests every week for families who need some place to go, somewhere to stay, and we can’t meet those requests now.

“So I worry about what is going to happen around family housing in Yellowknife, in terms of emergency and transitional family housing.”

According to Fuller, a federally owned apartment building in Yellowknife – of similar size to the 33-unit Rockhill complex – may be available. Fuller, who did not specify the building in question, hopes to know more before Christmas.

“We have met with people in Ottawa and I’m going back to Ottawa in December to do some follow-up on that. But it would be great if that could happen,” she said.

Below, you can read the full transcript of Lyda Fuller’s interview with Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams. This interview will be broadcast during Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News from 12pm on Tuesday, November 27, and will feature in the show’s daily podcast.


This interview was recorded on November 26, 2018.

Ollie Williams: I know the YWCA has seen posts online from former Rockhill tenants expressing dissatisfaction with the support they have received from the YWCA. How would you respond to those messages?

Lyda Fuller: We are meeting the needs of people. We are doing the same things we have always done – we are securing housing for people. In fact, we have guaranteed the leases for the people who were in private market housing who were impacted by the fire. Without those guarantees, people would be homeless. We think that’s a big thing, keeping people from being homeless.

We’ve given out gift cards. We have ordered and distributed meat boxes, which is also something we were doing before the fire, and we are making sure people continue to have access to food and to things from Walmart they need to replace. We have gotten furniture for people, including ordering a whole truckload coming up from Edmonton that should be arriving this week. Staff met with families and asked them specifically what they still needed, so we could do orders that met specific families’ needs rather than just ordering things and hoping that was what was needed.

We have spent more than $100,000 on furniture alone, and another $39,000 on delivery costs for distribution of furniture in Yellowknife.

I think it has been a challenge for us without a single building where everybody is living, to try to maintain the level of intense support we could give in the building. With people scattered across the city, it has been a challenge for us. We recognize that. Also, I think people are feeling traumatized from the fire and being uprooted from where they were living, and we can understand that.

Do you think there has been a misconception in terms of where the funds donated to the YWCA were going to go? I’m going to quote from a public Facebook post: ‘It’s a really shitty feeling to know that people donated thinking that they are directly helping the families affected, when they were actually donating to the organization’s funding.’ Do you worry that there was a misconception about how the money would be used?

I think there is a general misconception, maybe, about the requirements that are placed on charities. We are a charity and have registered charitable status, which means the Canada Revenue Agency watches what we do. They have guidelines specific to charities, and one of the things charities cannot do is give cash to what they call ‘unqualified donees.’ When you look at their website, the people we can give cash to turn out to be other registered charities, but not individuals. So we could have, at the start of this, given all the money that was donated to another charity and had them disburse goods and services to the families that were impacted.

But I think people also get confused around whether this was a GoFundMe kind of page, and it’s not. When you give money to a charity, you give it to them to carry out their charitable purposes: which, for us, is housing people, helping them with food security, and helping them with all the things they need to stabilize their housing. So we are doing the same kinds of things, with that funding, that we did before the fire – having housing for people, making sure they can keep that housing over the winter, making sure they have furniture and food. If there was an expectation that people would be direct recipients of cash, that was lost on me, and also not possible without us jeopardizing our charitable status.

You have a very clear interpretation of your organization’s role and how the money would be used, but it seems some of the recipients of the YWCA’s support were less clear on that. How hard has it been to communicate effectively with those affected by the Rockhill fire and be clear about what your role would be?

It is a bit challenging, like I said, with people scattered throughout the city. Staff have gone and met with people to find out, more specifically, what they needed, after we went through the initial beds, gift certificates, and those kinds of things. But it is hard to maintain that connection when you’re not all in the same building, when people could drop in and have informal discussions, or we could have a meal together. We’ve lost all the informal ways to connect with people and that is a challenge, so we’re hoping we can get some other kind of congregate living situation before the end of the fiscal year in March.

When you say you are hoping to be able to do that, what form might that take? Where might that be?

Well, there are some federal surplus buildings in Yellowknife and we have gone to Ottawa to meet with the federal minister, who was very interested in the fire and the impacts from that and what had been lost. As far as I know, we were the only group really doing emergency and transitional housing for families. You can already see the impacts of that being gone: you can see women backing up in the shelter system and it will only get worse, because we get requests every week for families who need some place to go, somewhere to stay, and we can’t meet those requests now. So I worry about what is going to happen around family housing in Yellowknife, in terms of emergency and transitional family housing.

To be clear on that, you are talking about federally owned buildings that could become homes for previous tenants of Rockhill?

Yes.

Whereabouts? Which buildings?

They do have a surplus apartment building available. Like I said, we have met with people in Ottawa and I’m going back to Ottawa in December to do some follow-up on that. But it would be great if that could happen.

Just lastly – I want to make sure people have things straight – when people were donating money to the YWCA following what happened at Rockhill, they were donating in order to help the YWCA to carry on doing what it has always done, and they were not directly funding families. That’s how you would present that. Am I right?

That’s true. The only other thing I would say is, because we do have insurance coverage, we are not using the donated money to replace our computers or to pay our staff. But we are using the money to carry on the activities around housing and support for families.