NWT has ‘astonishing’ homelessness data gap
The Northwest Territories government currently does not collect data on homelessness, the minister responsible said this week.
Responding to questions from Yellowknife MLAs Katrina Nokleby and Caitlin Cleveland, Paulie Chinna said statistics related to people without homes were “something the government has not put together.”
On Wednesday, Cleveland tabled an email from Chinna that shows Housing NWT does collect data on things like the number of rental units in the territory, the length of housing wait lists, the price of rent and arrears.
But based on that document, Housing NWT does not appear to have data on the gender and ethnicity of those living in its housing units, the number of tenants evicted from these units, or any statistics around homelessness.
Speaking in the legislature, Cleveland called the information gap “astonishing and disappointing” and expressed concern over how accurate a soon-to-be-released homelessness strategy will be without an numeric, evidence-based approach.
“Data is important,” she said. “It improves people’s lives, informs decision-making, shows trends, allows us to respond to challenges before they evolve into a crisis, alerts us if we need to pivot, gains trust in stakeholders, and provides strong arguments for funding.
“Data allows our strategies to actually be strategic.”
Throughout this week’s exchanges in the legislature, there appeared to be confusion around the role of Housing NWT and who, exactly, should be collecting this kind of data.
While Cleveland and Nokleby directed their frustration at Chinna, in her own statement, Chinna said the same issue was complicating her job.
“Not only does this make it difficult for me to tell you how many NWT residents are impacted at this point, but it also means that I do not have the data on how long individuals remain homeless and what kinds of housing solutions they move into,” she said.
The minister did not commit to begin collecting this data. Instead, Chinna emphasized that an all-of-government approach is needed to address homelessness, an approach that is not solely the responsibility of the housing department.
Late last year, a similar concern emerged at the federal level after Canada’s auditor general found that the federal departments responsible for housing had not been collecting data and were not under the impression that their mandate was to address homelessness.
Chinna appeared to note this parallel as she addressed Nokleby in the legislature.
“Similar to other jurisdictions, the Government of the Northwest Territories’ response to homelessness has been challenged by unclear lines of accountability, a patchwork of funding sources, an ad-hoc policy approach, and a lack of dedicated human resources,” Chinna said.
Where Chinna, Nokleby and Cleveland agree is that without the right information, it will continue to be challenging for Housing NWT to effectively house residents.
Homelessness strategy imminent
First announced in 2018, a homelessness strategic plan for the territory was intended as a joint project between several GNWT departments, with Housing NWT taking the lead.
At some point, responsibility shifted.
“The homelessness strategy is a priority of this government. As a result, it’s being led by the premier,” said deputy premier Diane Archie, speaking in the legislature on Wednesday.
At least one MLA was taken aback.
“Imagine my surprise,” said Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, “to recently learn that the highly anticipated homelessness strategy, a priority to all 19 of us and promised for April 2023 last session, isn’t even being led by the housing minister any more.
“What does this say about the state of the strategy, that in the 11th hour, the GNWT feels it’s better for a whole new minister and staff to execute it rather than the department where the expertise supposedly lies?”
Regular MLAs are expected to see a draft of the strategy for the first time at the end of this month.
Cleveland noted that a collaborative approach toward homelessness between departments is where others in the North are headed.
“Yukon Housing Corporation and Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services have committed to signing a multi-year memorandum of understanding, including coordinating their approach to information management,” the Kam Lake MLA said.
“Will the upcoming homelessness strategy include a plan for Housing NWT and the Department of Health and Social Services, as well as Education, Culture and Employment, to coordinate information management?”
Chinna confirmed this was the approach her department had taken throughout work on the homelessness strategy, collaborating with colleagues in the health and justice departments.
But there may have been little data with which to do that work.
“As social departments have worked together, they have noted the need for better data collection to support the work,” Chinna acknowledged.