Non-profits in Yellowknife are demanding quick, significant investments in affordable housing from all levels of government, stating homelessness in the territory is at “crisis levels.”
Last week, the YWCA NWT announced it was “sounding the alarm” on the territory’s housing situation for youth and families – an issue it says will only worsen as the Covid-19 pandemic persists.
“We’ve been doing housing programs for many, many years now, and we’ve seen that the problem is not getting better,” Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay, executive director of the YWCA NWT, told Cabin Radio.
“Every year, we still have many people on our waitlist. Many families are coming to us because of hidden homelessness.”
YWCA NWT programs include transitional housing for vulnerable families and safe housing for women fleeing intimate partner violence.
Since last April, the organization has found and signed on to rental units for 78 families – 100 adults and 156 children – and has paid rental arrears and outstanding bills for 49 families in financial crisis.
Another 50 families are on the waitlist for the housing program. The YWCA NWT says more inquiries come in weekly.
According to Dumbuya-Sesay, the high cost of living and low wages are the primary culprits.
“People with families will need usually at least three or more full-time jobs, if they’re making minimum wage, to afford a three-bedroom apartment at the current market rates in Yellowknife … and just being able to afford basic needs,” she said.
Dumbuya-Sesay said homelessness among family and youth populations can be harder to spot as those affected tend to couch-surf.
Yet that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
“A lot of the focus has been placed on single adult homelessness and the government is, to some extent, not really seeing the seriousness of family homelessness,” she said.
“Many people are finding themselves in unsafe situations because they don’t have a place of their own. That is still a reality for many families. Because you don’t see them on the streets, does not mean they’re not homeless.”
Setting people up to fail?
SideDoor, a Yellowknife organization that works to address youth homelessness, said it was seeing similarly high demand for housing services.
Kristopher Jennings, SideDoor’s housing and tenancy lead, helps young people to acquire their first space.
The program is serving five youth and there are another 10 on the waiting list.
Jennings says finding housing is a constant challenge.
“Weekly, I’m reaching out to different places and still nothing’s come available,” he said.
“I’ve offered to go and clean out units that people have been in so I can get them in there faster. There just really has not been anything.”
Forty-two percent of the 338 people experiencing homelessness documented in the report were 24 years old or younger. Of those, 104 were children under the age of 18.
“There’s been a plan to end homelessness in Yellowknife for so long now, and it just seems to be growing right now,” Jennings said. “It needs to be dealt with.
“We need to build more housing, stop with the big giant condos that maybe three percent of us can afford, and be building things that people can actually use.”
Both Jennings and Tammy Roberts, who is the executive director of SideDoor and the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, pointed out that housing plans need to be developed with long-term supports and an end game in mind.
Otherwise, they say, short-term solutions could cause more problems in the longer term.
“There are some funds available to top up to get youth into other places,” Roberts said, “but then again, you get a youth into a real expensive unit, if we were to find one, and then this funding is no longer available.
“We’re just setting them up to fail, like so many other programs set them up to fail, by putting them in a place they can no longer afford.”
Finding solutions – and funding
While Yellowknife non-profits call on governments to put more money into affordable housing, Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty says locating the cash for those investments is hard.
Asked for her response to the YWCA NWT’s concerns, Alty said: “It’s not new, but it’s still troubling and something we’re working to address.”
Both SideDoor and the YWCA NWT receive money from the City of Yellowknife through federal funding pots the city can access.
For instance, the city is receiving $6 million between 2019 and 2024 through Reaching Home, the federal government’s national strategy to end homelessness. That money has been funnelled out in part to local organizations.
However, federal funding presents challenges, Alty said.
“A lot of the funding comes from the federal government and so the programs get designed in Ottawa, and they don’t always take the North into account,” she said.
“The City of Yellowknife has one staff member that was dedicated to grant-writing because there’s a lot of funding out there, but it takes a lot of time to access.
“For a lot of the smaller communities, they don’t have those resources. You hire somebody to build or to put in an application for you, and then you don’t get it, and then you ‘wasted your money.’
“It’s a lot of challenges to continue to articulate to the federal government and hope that their future programs will take the North’s reality into consideration.”
YWCA eyes 21-unit expansion
Over the past year, the city has woven a complex web of applications for housing funding.
Despite initial hesitation, City Hall has filed two applications for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Rapid Housing Initiative, a $1-billion pot that provides funds for quick construction of affordable housing across the country.
In April last year, the city received a $500,000 top-up in housing funding related to Covid-19. The city has also received an extra $1.47 million in Reaching Home funding – beyond the $6 million mentioned above – which was largely allocated to the YWCA NWT, SideDoor, Yellowknife Women’s Society, and Salvation Army.
The YWCA NWT has also applied for its own Rapid Housing Initiative funding.
If successful, Dumbuya-Sesay said the organization is looking to expand its existing transitional housing facility in downtown Yellowknife.
That facility, known as Lynn’s Place, has 18 units for women and children in need of safe housing. Rent is set using the CMHC’s affordability guidelines.
The expansion would add 21 units in empty lots beside the building.
“That will help us to take families off our waitlist and give them a place to stay,” Dumbuya-Sesay said. The YWCA NWT expects to hear back by the end of January or early February.
In the meantime, the organization has launched an online campaign emphasizing the gravity of the situation.
“This is a serious issue,” Dumbuya-Sesay said. “We need partnerships, we need investment in affordable housing from all levels of government in order to really address this problem.
“We need more affordable housing – that’s the key. That’s the solution that we’re looking for.”