Gunner Strachan in Yellowknife. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
Craig “Gunner” Strachan says he came to Yellowknife from Nova Scotia looking for a new beginning.
Following two to three years with the Royal Canadian Navy, he was looking for a change. He began working in the hotel industry. “And then everything kind-of went south,” he said.
When things didn’t work out with the job, he began drinking more heavily and wound up without a place to live and in court facing a string of charges. After a brief stint behind bars, he was asked to provide an address as a condition of release for further follow-ups from RCMP. He gave the address of the place he had been staying for the past six months: the Salvation Army.
But just a few days later, Strachan said he was barred from the shelter was due to a conflict with a manager.
“That first night, I called the RCMP, because I was legally obligated to be there,” said Strachan. “It was a court order. And they sent some people down there who spoke with the manager, and they let me stay the night. Everything was fine. But the following night, they refused to let me in.”
Strachan believes there should be more transparency and accountability around shelter evictions, especially in situations like his, when his presence there is so important for his future. In other areas, shelter users must be provided with documentation explaining that they were asked to leave and setting out why, which can then be used in future advocacy efforts or to explain a failure to comply with court orders.
In Yellowknife, shelter evictions are often private, verbal conversations between service providers and clients. In cases where two versions of events are in dispute, providers can cite mental health issues and substance abuse as reasons why clients may not be truthful about why they were denied service. But in other cities, service providers have sometimes been found to misrepresent the reality: in 2017, an undercover sting carried out by New York City’s human rights commission found that illegal, discriminatory practices were common at several downtown clinics and shelters.
Strachan says the police told him they had no power to change the court order, which was confirmed in an RCMP statement to Cabin Radio. If officers don’t find him at the Salvation Army when he’s supposed to be there, he fears he could be in serious trouble with the law once again.
Confusion between the courts and non-profits
The Salvation Army told Cabin Radio the decision to refuse service to shelter users isn’t made lightly.
“While we cannot comment on specific situations, the safety, security and comfort of our staff and shelter service users remains our top priority,” wrote Jason Brinson, executive director at the Salvation Army in Yellowknife, in an email to Cabin Radio.
“When the authorities make arrangements with us to house folks on conditional discharge, we will accommodate such requests if possible. All guests are required to adhere to our policies and protocols to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone.”
When NWT inmates leave jail, they are often given release conditions that require being at home during predetermined hours. These terms are enforced by police checks.
For those without homes, NWT courts frequently list the Salvation Army as this address. While all working Northwest Territories judges declined to be interviewed for this report, it is possible that this practice arose after the Salvation Army began allowing people dealing with housing insecurity to use the charity’s downtown Yellowknife location as their address when applying for jobs or government documents.
From the perspective of those running the Salvation Army shelter, these court orders can be complicated.
“We have been in contact with members from the court and [Department of] Justice as well as the RCMP to provide feedback on the impact of such release conditions,” Brinson wrote. “We are thankful for the ongoing community partnerships and the commitment to mutual understanding when situations like this arise.”
Ultimately, the Salvation Army has no legal obligation to facilitate court orders.
The Salvation Army does collaborate with the justice department in the operation of its discharge support program, which assigns case workers to help inmates reintegrate into the community. But spots are limited, so an internal selections committee determines which candidates would be a good fit for the program.
When it comes to release conditions, the Salvation Army says it does not receive communication from the courts or from the justice department and reserves the right to be selective about who can stay at the shelter.
“Periodically, shelter service users will make us aware that they are under release conditions to reside at the Salvation Army,” said Brinson. “We have agreements for other programs, but the shelter is not one of them, as it operates as an emergency overnight shelter only.”
Asked about this issue, the territorial Department of Justice said its ability to intervene in these cases is limited.
“It is incumbent on the individual and defence counsel to explain to the court how the individual will be able to meet [court-ordered conditions],” said Ngan Trinh, a senior communications advisor for the department.
“Ultimately, it is the court that orders conditions imposed on an individual, not the Department of Justice.”
According to a territorial court representative, the next step for someone in Strachan’s situation would be to get in touch with legal aid and seek a hearing to adjust his release conditions.
Alternatively, someone in Strachan’s position could simply hope to avoid encounters with police. But if that approach fails, it could mean a return to the justice system.
The prison-to-homelessness pipeline
A significant number of Canadians discharged from prison end up homeless, and a substantial number of homeless people end up in prison, research across Canada has found.
The phenomenon has a name: the revolving door.
“Between 10 and 30 percent of federal prisoners are released with nowhere to stay that night,” says Lise Clément, a senior consultant with the Lansdowne Consulting Group, quoted in a 2021 document related to Canada’s National Housing Strategy.
“They have served long sentences and frequently have no identification, no money and no bank account. Even booking a motel room can be difficult. Too often, their only options are shelters or the street.”
“I feel like I’ve been set up to fail,” said Strachan.
Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Yellowknife’s Kam Lake district, most recently raised the revolving door in the NWT legislature in 2021.
“People who are released from different correctional facilities have a hard time finding stable housing on the other side of that,” Cleveland said, asking justice minister RJ Simpson if there was a plan to connect inmates with stable transitional housing upon release.
“No,” said Simpson, “but the Government of the Northwest Territories does provide options for housing through either income assistance, which pays market rent, or the Housing Corporation.”
When Cabin Radio asked the Department of Justice if there is a discharge planning strategy in the NWT, a representative said inmates do receive help with their transition out of prison.
“With respect to release planning from NWT correctional facilities, all inmates are provided with release planning coordinated between them and their case manager,” wrote Trinh.
“Planning for release begins once an individual is admitted into custody and is something that is worked on throughout their period of incarceration.”
But according to Strachan, this support doesn’t include help finding housing.
“They offered to connect me with programs like AA, but there was nothing about housing.”
Even if Strachan’s case worker had offered to help submit an application, there are usually significant wait times for public housing. (In the case of one NWT community, the waitlist was recently given as three to seven years, though the community was not specified.)
Sometimes, former inmates give in to addictions and end up back where they started.
The revolving door isn’t just personally devastating for those involved. It’s also expensive.
Again speaking in 2021, Cleveland said the annual cost of caring for one inmate amounts to “more than the average annual salary for one GNWT employee, or equal to the annual operations and maintenance of five public housing units.”
Cleveland said the social services system – including the departments responsible for justice, health, employment and housing – represented a “cyclical and costly use of resources” where silos between agencies meant programs were duplicated and people kept coming back through the door.
While that problem is increasingly recognized by policymakers, a whole-of-government approach to homelessness that includes collaboration between all territorial departments has yet been implemented.
‘We’re not just nobodies’
The warming shelter on Yellowknife’s 49 Street is a set of trailers. In stark, mostly empty rooms, people sit on plywood floors or try to get some rest on thin rubber mats.
Still, Strachan says he is grateful for everything that’s offered there.
“The staff here is amazing, they offer three warm meals a day, TV, internet… a place to put our head,” he said.
But it closes at 6:30pm each day, and that’s when many head directly to the sobering centre to ensure they get a spot for the night.
At the sobering centre, which is an alternative given he cannot go to the Salvation Army, Strachan says conditions are more difficult.
“When you arrive, you have to go directly to bed. There’s no socializing or walking around or anything like that. It feels like you’re a child, honestly.”
For the next 12 hours, occupants lie in bed until they’re allowed to rise again at 7:30 am.
Even if Strachan can avoid getting into trouble around his release conditions, his living situation is not especially conducive to sobriety, let alone to organizing the architecture of a new life.
He says he now has a part-time job, while shelter staff say he’s always volunteering to do extra tasks and help out. At the time of reporting, Strachan said he was 61 days sober.
Some day, he hopes to open a shelter of his own, one that’s welcoming, doesn’t “use everybody’s addiction against them,” and where no one has to fear being “left out on the street.”
“I’d like people to know that we’re not just nobodies. We all have a life,” he said.
“We’re not all successful and everything like that, but we’re still people. Just because we’re homeless, it doesn’t mean that we’re not good people.”
Correction: March 22, 2023 – 12:08 MT. This article initially stated that Craig Strachan spent 20 years with the Royal Canadian Navy, based on his testimony. He did no such thing. The Canadian Armed Forces says a person matching Strachan’s description served between 2008 and 2011 only. This article has been amended as a result, and Cabin Radio regrets the error.