Yellowknife city council is still determining how it wants to spend more than $1.5 million in federal funding to address homelessness in the city.
In April, the city received $500,000 from a federal program – Reaching Home – that aims to prevent and reduce homelessness across the country. Of that, just under $200,000 remains according to city administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett.
The same federal program then contributed an additional $1.47 million to the City of Yellowknife in October.
“That gives us a fair chunk of money to be working with right now,” Bassi-Kellett said.
“We would certainly look to expedite this in the best way possible, knowing the urgency around these funds.”
That urgency comes from the deadline by which the funding must be spent: March 31, 2021.
At a meeting on Monday, council withheld approval to spend the cash on one plan while alternatives are explored.
Yellowknife’s Community Advisory Board on Homelessness had suggested using the money to create 20 new overnight beds for individuals and 10 rooms for families, as well as covering some rental arrears and funding some temporary rent support for those at risk of becoming homeless.
Councillors were hesitant to commit to that plan because some felt providing more overnight shelter and covering rental arrears were temporary measures.
“I have a bit of difficulty saying, ‘Yeah, let’s rent hotel rooms for people,’ if we can’t demonstrate actual capacity issues,” Councillor Niels Konge said.
“The rent arrears … I think, actually is going to create a bigger problem after March 31. If people are challenged with their rent, a one-time top-up is not what the solution is. It’s so temporary.”
There was confusion regarding precisely how grave any shortage of overnight beds is – if a shortage exists at all.
Councillor Stacie Smith argued that Covid-19 restrictions meant fewer overnight beds were available in facilities who would normally offer the service.
However, Mayor Rebecca Alty said she had data suggesting a surplus of beds currently exists in Yellowknife as other initiatives have filled the gap. She cited the transformation of the Arnica Inn as one example.
‘Leave no stone unturned’
Alty offered an alternative that councillors opted to back: pausing the decision-making process, asking the federal government for an extension, and looking for more permanent solutions to fund.
The mayor also wants the federal government to assess whether any of its residential properties in Yellowknife can be turned into affordable housing.
Aspen Apartments, for example, is a federal building. While currently leased to the GNWT to provide isolation space for people affected by Covid-19, that lease expires at the end of March and the city could look to acquire it as affordable housing.
“I want to make sure that we leave no stone unturned before we do this recommendation,” Alty said of the plan to add overnight beds and cover rental arrears. “If no permanent housing options can be found, then I’d be happy to consider this recommendation in the future.”
The mayor said council will probably need to hold a special meeting in December to make a decision before the year ends.