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Accessing proper help in NWT ‘feels like rigged board game,’ says MLA

Last modified: February 12, 2021 at 6:19am


One Yellowknife MLA is calling for major improvements in the way government departments work together to help NWT residents who otherwise “fall through the cracks.”

Throughout the week, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland has criticized what she believes is a lack of access to integrated supports for housing, addictions, and domestic violence.

She argues that while the NWT does have an integrated case management service – dedicated to ensuring residents don’t get lost in the government system, and get the answers they need – connecting people to that system is harder than it should be.

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As an illustration, Cleveland referred to the story of a constituent given the pseudonym Avery.

“Avery is a parent facing eviction from public housing who struggles with substance abuse, mental health, and family violence in the home,” Cleveland told the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.

According to Cleveland, Avery sought help from the RCMP, the territory’s housing corporation, and a social worker before eventually being able to access the integrated case management unit.

Avery “made 14 connections with public servants with the primary goal of accessing integrated case management and its wraparound support services,” Cleveland said.

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“I know the GNWT system refused to take no for an answer, and it still took us 14 connections to find support that extended beyond the first contact. If an MLA can’t untangle the system, how can someone struggling be expected to?

“This siloed system of dead ends is failing our people. Accessing support should not feel like a rigged board game. We need to meet people where they are with the right support.”

System has a waiting list

Integrated case management was launched in Yellowknife six years ago as a pilot program.

The system employs “pathfinders” who help people navigate a labyrinth of paperwork and programs related to justice, health, social services, education and housing. Its purpose is to eliminate bureaucratic barriers and give vulnerable people straightforward access to the help they need.

The service model has been hailed as a success within the city, and the GNWT committed to expanding integrated case management in June last year.

While Cleveland praised the system, she said there are problems with the way it works.

Cases are often slow to be referred to integrated case management, she said, creating the very same bureaucratic hurdles it was designed to eliminate.

That residents must be referred to the system by a government department, and cannot refer themselves, is itself a problem, Cleveland added.

But justice minister RJ Simpson said demand for the service is currently too high to let residents refer themselves.

RJ Simpson in September 2020
RJ Simpson in September 2020. Sarah Sibley/Cabin Radio

“Right now, there are around 95 clients who have pathfinders assigned to them, but there is also a large waiting list,” Simpson said.

“Even without self-referral, we have a very large wait list.

“If there was self-referral, it would then put more burden on the program to sift through those people to see, ‘OK, who do we take next?’ At least with the process as it is, that filtering process is done.”

Simpson went on to say integrated case management, or ICM, is not the “be-all, end-all” of service delivery – a response to which Cleveland immediately took exception.

“Yes, ICM is not the be-all, end-all, but ICM cannot join the team of dead ends within the GNWT,” she said.

“ICM needs to have a solution for people who show up at the door and are asking for help.”

Cleveland had a similar exchange with Premier Caroline Cochrane the day before, calling on her to “address the NWT’s need for client-focused accessible integrated service delivery in the course of this Assembly.”

In response, Cochrane said Cleveland was “absolutely right.”

Premier Caroline Cochrane in the Legislative Assembly.

“It would be really nice if people could stop and hit one service centre and be able to get their answers addressed and the services they need,” she said.

“That is the goal of the government, eventually.”

Moving the Housing Corporation ‘upstream’

Later in the week, Cleveland turned her attention toward the NWT Housing Corporation – again using her constituent Avery’s experience as an example.

“When Avery missed rent payments, a notice was emailed. When Avery was disrupted, the LHA [local housing authority] identified the behaviour needed to change and put their client on a payment plan. When no change occurred, Avery was asked to sign a last-chance agreement.

“Rent didn’t stop getting paid due to laziness, and disruptions weren’t just because. At no point did the local housing authority connect Avery to government supports outside of their office.

“Given the importance of housing to social and individual wellness, I expect the housing corporation to empower its local housing authorities to provide trauma-informed, client-focused service. It is clear from Avery’s experience that they do not.”

Cleveland said Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation, should redraft the corporation’s mission statement to “reflect its responsibility to provide housing as a social service rather than solely as a commodity” and develop wraparound service standards for local housing organizations and authorities.

Cleveland continued to push Chinna during Thursday’s session, demanding the minister make a concrete commitment to changing eviction processes.

“All I’m asking for is a checkbox on a form when you’re going through an eviction that says the person was connected with the support,” she said.

“Providing a connection between NWT residents and support services that are paid for and delivered by the GNWT should be a natural thing, and all I’m asking for is a commitment to do that.”

Paulie Chinna, minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation, in the Legislative Assembly.

Chinna eventually did commit to doing so, and to redrafting the housing corporation mission statement.

In a statement on Wednesday, Cleveland said: “Chaos is costly and prevention is key.

“It is time for this government to move the housing corporation upstream. It is time for it restructure and evolve to support the wraparound care model that the GNWT is already working to put in place.”

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