Premier Caroline Cochrane unveils the NWT's homelessness strategy on May 31, 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A finalized homelessness strategy revealed on Wednesday prioritizes the rollout of a system praised for its impact in Yellowknife.
The territorial government will now create a new unit dedicated to expanding integrated service delivery, which seeks to give people straightforward access to help by demolishing bureaucratic barriers.
In Yellowknife, the system has been celebrated for its use of pathfinders – members of staff who help people navigate a labyrinth of paperwork and programs related to justice, health, social services, education, and housing.
In its final homelessness strategy (a draft had been rolled out in March), the NWT government said its integrated service delivery unit – called the ISD team in the document – would be drawn from existing staff and resources rather than creating new positions.
The strategy states the ISD team will foster a government-wide system that “recognizes the person as the expert in what they need and puts them at the centre of service delivery and decision-making.”
“This change will require a cultural shift in service provision across the GNWT and a commitment to equity, anti-racism, flexibility and teamwork when supporting NWT residents,” the document adds.
In practice, that means bringing together staff from the GNWT and other levels of government to create ISD centres in more communities beyond Yellowknife. Those staff will be expected to help programs “work together better,” starting with homelessness programs and services but eventually expanding to other areas.
At a briefing for reporters on Wednesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane said a Department of Justice team already doing similar work will be transitioned to focus on homelessness.
“Not all homeless people are involved in the justice system, that’s a fallacy,” Cochrane said, adding that her government would “expand that to all communities, because we need to have wraparound support. You can’t just shelter people and expect they’re going to get healthy. It needs to be a comprehensive service.”
Unit is a priority
Where the new ISD centres will be, and when they will arrive, is not clear. Officials said work to make those decisions would take place as soon as possible.
“That’s a very active conversation happening now. We’d like to see integrated service delivery broadened as quickly as we can,” said Martin Goldney, deputy minister of executive and Indigenous affairs.
“Even as this strategy was being developed, there were conversations happening in regions around: are communities willing to host some ISD sites in them, and what can we do to get folks ready to have that further expansion?
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow but as soon as we are ready and communities are ready, we would love to see the expansion of integrated service delivery happening in a timeline measured in months and not years.”
Cochrane said forming the ISD team is the first priority “so departments can no longer say, ‘That’s not mine, it’s somebody else’s.'”
“It’s really easy to say that’s health, that’s justice. But that’s not OK with me,” the premier said.
“These are residents of the NWT and I don’t care whose program, or whose department, we all have to work together.”
Cochrane said there is no further money in the current budget to support the strategy beyond what was already allocated, but she expects more money to be required to achieve its goals.
“Once we form this unit, those are the assessments we will be making,” Cochrane said.
“If the federal government wants to help, I am more than willing to take their assistance. I also recognize that Indigenous and community governments have a stake in this as well, and NGOs … but the smaller organizations struggle with capacity, so it would be unfair for us to expect them to put large amounts in.”
Journey to functional zero
As in March’s draft strategy, the overarching goal of the document published on Wednesday is “functional zero.”
That means an environment in which anyone who finds themselves homeless has immediate access to resources that help them, and the NWT experiences no chronic cases of homelessness.
“The goal is to ensure housing stability, which means that individuals have a fixed address and housing that is appropriate and that they have the required income, services and supports to enhance their well-being and reduce their risk of experiencing homelessness,” the strategy states.
Much of the strategy emphasizes better collaboration between agencies, and achieving functional zero is a prime example. The strategy calls for every NWT community to develop a separate path to functional zero, tailored to that community’s needs and resources.
“Reaching functional zero levels for each community in the NWT should be the ultimate goal of the homelessness strategy. It requires a coordinated, well-functioning system that can quickly assess and support people experiencing homelessness, and provide integrated services to prevent homelessness from reoccurring. It requires sustained effort, continuity of effective programs and services, collaboration, and teamwork,” the strategy states.
Other goals in the strategy include adding extra navigator positions outside Yellowknife to help people access mental wellness and addictions supports – in effect, another form of integrated service delivery – and adding affordable housing. The strategy puts forward various ways to do that, such as talking with developers about barriers that can be removed or implementing a rapid rehousing program that would move people “out of shelters and into housing as quickly and sustainably as possible.”
The strategy also envisages work to:
remove policy barriers that get in the way of helping people;
make sure shelters have the resources they need and collaborate to fill gaps;
develop more transitional housing across the NWT; and
do a better job of collecting, sharing and analyzing related data.
“We need data to prove that strategies work, otherwise we’re guessing,” said Cochrane.
“Data collection is going to be critical moving forward,” added Robert Tordiff, assistant deputy minister of the Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs. “We’ll need the data to have a fully informed discussion of how we evolve our programs.”
Cochrane said the Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs would house the new integrated service delivery unit “to give priority to that.”
“If we can make sure that the homelessness unit is formed, then there is a better chance of it being carried forward,” she said, adding she would do what she could to achieve that in the remaining months before the fall’s territorial election.
“Hold us to account in the next assembly. This is important,” Cochrane added, referring to the government formed after that election.
Time taken to develop strategy
In the legislature on Wednesday, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos tried holding the territory to account in this assembly, asking why the finalized strategy had taken so long to come out.
Responding to Martselos, Cochrane said she knew when the strategy was first announced, in 2018, that it “wasn’t going to be as easy as we stated” and that it needed to bring all departments together.
“It was housing, it was health, it was justice, it was income support, education … we had two years of Covid and the same departments that needed to work on the strategy were struggling, working desperately to save the lives of people,” Cochrane said.
“Once we got a handle on [Covid], then we started to focus back on to this. At that time, Housing handed it over to myself, as premier, for an all-of-government approach.”
Officials said the final version differs from the draft in that feedback has been incorporated from people experiencing homelessness or working in the sector, resulting in a focus that has expanded from chronic homelessness to address the issue in more forms.
Of the changes between the draft and final version, Cochrane said: “We didn’t have the feedback that was needed. We did not ask the people … so we took a step back and we spent time to actually interview people, so we could actually have a more comprehensive strategy.”