The Spruce Bough transitional housing facility in June 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson is calling on the territorial government to commit long-term funding to the Spruce Bough facility, something the Yellowknife Women’s Society agrees is necessary.
Spruce Bough – located in the former Arnica Inn and run by the women’s society – is a transitional housing facility that’s currently funded until September 30 using emergency pandemic money from partners including the territorial Department of Health and Social Services.
It quickly opened last March as an isolation centre in response to the pandemic, and has since evolved to include a managed alcohol program, group meals, and a medical outreach service, the CBC reported.
But its future is uncertain once the pandemic-related funding dries up.
In February, Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green said her department “recognized the value of the program at the Spruce Bough” and committed that “in the next six or seven months, the department will work with the Yellowknife Women’s Society to explore options for continuing this program once the pandemic ends.”
But on Thursday, when questioned by Johnson about committing to long-term funding, Green said it was not the health department’s responsibility to fund the transitional housing project.
“The reason health and social services is involved in this conversation is that pandemic response money has been funding the Spruce Bough up to this point, and we have a commitment of that money until the end of September,” she said.
“When it comes to working with entities like the Housing Corporation and the [Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation], then the Spruce Bough will need to do that – they don’t need health and social services as an intermediary.”
Green said future funding from her department is dependent on what happens with the Covid-19 pandemic over the next few months.
“The funding was provided in order to give vulnerable people a place to live and particularly a place to isolate during the pandemic,” she said. “If it turns out that there is no longer this need because the pandemic has turned into an endemic situation and we don’t have access to that funding, then … these housing entities need to come in and support the Spruce Bough.”
At the same time, Green said she hoped “the transition to stable and long-term funding from a variety of sources will be solidified” and that a multi-department approach was needed.
Johnson said he’s concerned the Yellowknife Women’s Society is having to navigate working with the federal government and multiple territorial departments to find funding in a short amount of time while also trying to run the facility.
“It’s causing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty for that organization,” he said, noting past September 30, residents don’t know where they’ll live and staff don’t know if they’ll have jobs.
Neesha Rao, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, agreed a commitment to long-term funding from the territorial government was needed, adding she is “cautiously optimistic” a solution will be found.
“I think [the health department] did a really good thing here by taking care of some of the most vulnerable members of our community during the pandemic,” she said, reflecting on the last year.
“The goal here is to keep moving forward … I think this is an opportunity that is going to require support and coordination across the [NWT government].”
Rao encouraged the territorial government to not only continue funding Spruce Brough – which is currently housing 38 people and has a waiting list – but other facilities like it.
She said multiple territorial departments should work together to fund the facility as it addresses mental health and addictions through the managed alcohol program, and houses seniors and people with medical conditions.
Rao said research has shown it’s more cost-effective to house and support people with these needs than to not, due to the costs of hospitalizations, incarceration, social problems, and intergenerational trauma.
“I really want our government to be proactive and intelligent and thoughtful here about when they when they think about funding,” she said.