Lesa Semmler, right, and Caitlin Cleveland at a meeting about housing and homelessness in Inuvik. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Inuvik residents addressing MLAs at a Monday meeting about homelessness had one word they uttered with unique distaste.
Ellen Smith’s story is an example. Now in her seventies, she told a committee led by Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler: “I applied to housing. Denied three times.”
The reason why? “Policy.”
Susan Peffer told the meeting: “Policy is harmful. It’s harming our people rather than lifting us up. The burden is too heavy for the community to carry any more.
“We’re the NWT, we’re not Toronto or anywhere. Policies can change. We have to make that difference. It’s life and death.”
Of Inuvik’s homeless community, she said: “Just a little 10-by-12 house. That’s all they’re asking. And a bed and a warm stove, that’s it. We could provide that a thousand times over, I know that for sure. But policy says no, you can’t build over there. You can’t do this.”
Inuvik, like many northern communities, is battling a shortage of adequate housing and lengthy waiting lists.
Meanwhile, the town’s two shelters – one a warming shelter, the other a “dry” shelter where alcohol cannot be consumed – are in the process of changing hands, only a year after the NWT government took over their operation from local groups. The territory is now running a request for proposals to see if third parties once again want to take on the shelters.
Peggy Day, who sat on a volunteer advisory board helping to run the shelters for years, picked apart the GNWT’s request for proposals at Monday’s meeting.
“Description of additional funding sources,” she said, reading out a bullet point from the document. “They want us to find extra funding to run the shelter. We didn’t even have enough money to run the shelters to begin with.”
Reading another, she said: “Will not solely rely on GNWT funds,” adding: “They promised us we’d never have to look around for funding and here they are, asking us where we are going to find extra funds to operate.”
Day provided a separate example of how territorial government policies are perceived to affect housing availability.
She described a woman seeking to legally adopt her grandson. The woman had been waiting for a one-bedroom unit but, thinking of her grandson, “could not go on the housing list for a two-bed until she had legal custody.”
“He was living with her from December. She applied in February and they were like, nope,” said Day.
“She was getting the runaround. I had to literally drive her from Inuvik to Tuk, which is a way smaller community, so she could have a place to stay, because there is no room available for her in Inuvik.”
‘We’re open about it’
One of the night’s most moving contributions came from Mary-Anne Francey and her mom.
Francey described years of homelessness from the age of 15. “Maybe I’ve stayed at your house,” she told people in the room.
“When I did get into housing, when I was a bit older, it was great having a home for the first time, something to provide for my son. It gave me this sense of stability and calmness,” Francey said.
“I got a government job and I continued to work as hard as I could to climb up, because that’s what we’re told we need to do from a very young age. We’re told to follow the policies, take the steps.”
But she added: “I followed every rule there is, and I’m still facing a housing crisis.”
Her housing benefit is late arriving in her account, she said, leaving her unable to pay for food as her paycheque is entirely spent on rent.
“I’m 40 years old and nothing has stopped, nothing has changed,” she said, urging MLAs in the room – Semmler was joined by committee chair Caitlin Cleveland, Ron Bonnetrouge and Katrina Nokleby, with minister and Inuvik Boot Lake MLA Diane Archie also in attendance – to “Indigenize policy.”
“These houses aren’t designed for northern families or persons with disabilities. Their designs aren’t meant for the North,” she said.
“Where are the policies and the action to follow up to make sure these types of thing are addressed?”
Mary-Anne’s mom, Judy, her voice full of anger, added: “She struggled. I’m so angry.”
She told MLAs: “You know what’s happening, and yet nothing is being done. We don’t need to be told by the government, ‘No, this is our policy.’ It’s a long time coming that our Indigenous people stand up and say something. We have a voice and we can do it.”
Then, turning to her daughter, Judy described sorrow for Mary-Anne’s battle with homelessness, explaining how she had faced abuse herself as a child. “I’m really sorry,” she said through tears.
Mary-Anne, replying, said: “It’s OK. We sit and talk about it, and we’re open about it, and that’s exactly what the government needs to start doing.”
How policies can hurt
Housing NWT, the rebranded housing corporation, has acknowledged that its policies sometimes get in the way.
That rebrand comes with a full review of policies and programs, staff have previously said.
Housing documents for various NWT communities show how programs have become extraordinarily hard for some families to access because of the policies that define who can benefit.
From 2006 to 2018, for example, 404 applicants tried to access housing programs in Whatì. Of those, 172 were approved.
In Paulatuk, just seven of 67 applications were approved between 2006 and 2022. In Enterprise, 32 applications were approved and completed out of 64 received between 2006 and 2019.
Applications were primarily denied because applicants owed money to their local housing office. Others had income that was too large, or income that wasn’t enough.
Change is happening, Housing NWT president Eleanor Young previously told Cabin Radio. She said two major barriers were the need for insurance – not always easily arranged in smaller communities – and land tenure, both of which have now been eliminated from policy manuals.
But Semmler, speaking after the meeting concluded, said a bigger, government-wide shift still needs to occur.
“All policies are created where? In Yellowknife. They’re written by non-Indigenous people for Indigenous people,” she said.
“We can have all the meetings in Yellowknife and wonder why we have 300-plus Indigenous people [homeless] in Yellowknife. It’s because the housing policies in the small communities are pushing them to where there are places for them to sleep. That’s the problem with all these policies.”
Semmler expressed optimism that the GNWT was now reviewing housing policies with a council of the territory’s Indigenous leaders.
“If we have their eyes on these policies, I’m hoping that things might change,” she said.
‘These same conversations’
In the room on Monday, there was an acknowledgement that some shifts go beyond policy to the changing shape of society.
“When I was growing up, we never experienced homelessness because everybody took care of each other,” said Peffer.
“Somewhere along the way, we lost focus. We started looking at money, a good home, a nice truck. That’s what we started looking at, as NWT residents.”
Lillian Elias, similarly, said: “I had never heard of a homeless shelter. My grandfather sheltered a lot of people, too many to name. We never said anything. We never said no, you can’t bring them in here. We couldn’t do that.
“We took them in. We gave them money to feed their dogs, if they had dogs.
“It’s so amazing how, today, when we talk about a homeless shelter, it’s different today than those days. No more sharing, no more caring.”
But there was also a sense of exhaustion at another meeting, another committee, and another set of perceived promises.
Katarina Kuhnert told the meeting she had tried to encourage members of Inuvik’s homeless community to come to the meeting. “People didn’t want to come today,” Kuhnert said, “because it was too devastating to hear that we were going to have these same conversations again.”
Referring to the shelter situation, Kuhnert said: “The last time, the government said they were going to take over and things would get better. Now, it’s less than a year, and we’re passing the buck again.
“We create systems that fail to meet the needs of people. The system we have designed, that we have sat here in these meetings and designed, has failed people and it has led to their deaths. I don’t want to go back and tell my friends that this was the result, again, of these meetings.”
In response, Semmler said: “We can’t stop trying, even though we’re sitting here in meetings again. All we can do is bring the voices of the people to the minister, to say enough is enough.