The town of Inuvik has two homeless shelters. One is for people who are sober, the other for people actively using substances. Together, they support roughly 30 to 40 unhoused people.
Disagreements about best practices for supporting people accessing the shelters, combined with a lack of funding and the pandemic’s added pressures, have made managing these shelters a subject of debate and rancour.
While the dry shelter has remained relatively stable, the wet shelter (also known as the warming centre) has struggled to provide consistent services. In May 2021, the wet shelter closed its doors.
Housing NWT, previously the NWT Housing Corporation, took over the operation of both shelters in July 2021, saying that would bring stability and consistency through proper training for staff and a new governance system to replace boards of governors.
This was unusual for the agency, which historically has supported overnight shelters through funding but not management.
Earlier this spring, Housing NWT asked community groups – including Indigenous governments and non-governmental organizations – to submit expressions of interest for the operation of both shelters.
This appeared like the territorial government reversing course to some residents. In an interview with Cabin Radio, Housing NWT president Eleanor Young said the agency’s intention was never to take permanent control of the shelters.
“The goal was to just get in, try to stabilize things as quickly as we could, go back out of it, and continue to work with the shelter from there,” Young said.
“It was a temporary measure just to try to keep the shelter operating and keep things going,” she added, referring specifically to the warming centre.
The application window for expressions of interest is now closed. Housing NWT says it is reviewing applications and plans to transfer operational responsibility to the successful organization this summer.
Some Inuvik residents who used to help run the shelters say they were initially relieved to see the territory step in with more support, but have since seen little evidence of the agency accomplishing what it set out to do.
One woman, who joined a community-based homelessness coalition that formed when the warming centre shut down last spring, said she thinks the agency is trying to wash its hands of responsibility for the shelters before they run into disaster.
“Them trying to pass off responsibility for the shelters in less than a year is a reflection of the challenges that community members pointed out to them in the first place, and they still made grandiose promises about their ability to turn things around,” the woman said.
“Now they’re trying to pass a system that has degraded even further back onto the shoulders of a community group.”
Like most people Cabin Radio spoke with for this report, the woman requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject involving many Inuvik residents.
She said tensions have risen in the community around the question of how to provide services to Inuvik’s unhoused people, sober or otherwise.
That tension encompasses several important questions, like:
- What role should the territorial government play in supporting unhoused communities?
- Who should be writing the policies that affect these communities?
- How best can a community support people living with addictions?
In this report, we attempt to set out what’s happened at the shelters to date and what might happen next.
Cabin Radio spoke with shelter staff, board members, Housing NWT representatives, and service providers who run programming at the shelters. Shelter users contacted by Cabin Radio expressed a preference not to be interviewed. Without their voices, the story remains incomplete.
What was happening before Housing NWT took over?
The Inuvik Homeless Shelter (the dry shelter) was the first in the community. It offers beds and meals to people living on the street, as long as they are sober. The Inuvik Warming Centre (the wet shelter) opened in 2013 to provide a place for unhoused people using drugs or alcohol to sleep at night.
Prior to Housing NWT’s takeover, both shelters’ boards struggled to find money to keep the shelters open, let alone run programming.
Peggy Day was a volunteer on the dry shelter’s board for more than 10 years.
She said the board, made up of five or six women, never saw any major internal conflict.
“We were just passionate about supporting our clients and we left their management up to Christina because that’s what she was hired to do. And if there were any issues that she couldn’t handle or needed support with, we were there to support her,” Day explained.
Day is referring to Christina Kasook, who was the dry shelter’s manager for many years before Housing NWT took over and demoted her to supervisor. For a brief period after Housing NWT reopened the warming centre in September 2021, Kasook was running both shelters.
The dry shelter’s struggles were funding-related.
“Sometimes we had to borrow money to make ends meet for salary and to keep the doors open,” Day explained, adding the board would run bingo fundraisers, or apply for support from organizations like the Salvation Army or food banks to feed people accessing the shelters.
“Some months we have had to not pay our utility bills so that we could pay our staff,” she said.
As Day remembered it, the board had to find between $30,000 and $50,000 a year on top of territorial funding to keep the shelter running.
The situation at the warming centre was more complicated, in part because of the nature of the services it provided.
One woman who previously served on the warming centre’s board said it began to experience staffing and organizational issues in 2018 or 2019.
As she remembers it, movement of people between staff and board positions led to the blurring of responsibilities, an observation noted in a CBC report just prior to the board’s collapse in the fall of 2020.
“Theoretically, boards are supposed to be distance policymakers, overseers, if all goes well. In a small community, it sometimes maybe doesn’t always work that way,” the woman said.
Low morale at the wet shelter, which the woman attributes largely to the board’s difficulties, made holding on to staff tricky. The centre only needs about 15 full-time and part-time positions to operate full weekday and weekend services but, between 2016 and 2020, the woman estimates the warming centre employed 120 people.
Covid-19 brought a whole new set of challenges. The warming centre did not have enough space to offer physical distancing so it had to temporarily move to the Aurora College residence.
In October 2020, after moving back to its original location, most members of the warming centre society resigned after staff and board members were not able to resolve their disagreements.
Then-chair of the board Ruth Wright explained the decision at a community meeting.
“For some time now, the centre has been struggling,” she said, as quoted by the Inuvik Drum, referring to issues like staffing, management, and an adequate location.
“Especially in light of Covid-19, there have been many obstacles to overcome and unfortunately the society has not resolved all of them.”
In May 2021, the board decided to close the shelter for the summer months. Housing NWT said while it was not its decision to close the shelter, the agency would use the time to train staff.
A month later, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler suggested the NWT government could play a larger role.
“There are only so many volunteers and, once they get burned out and you don’t have a board and you start losing staff, things start to go. And the only people that end up feeling it are the ones that are utilizing the shelter,” Semmler said.
“Maybe it’s time to look at running it through the government and having a place for people to sleep and eat every night.”
Meanwhile, concerned community members formed a coalition to begin brainstorming a long-term strategy to support Inuvik’s unhoused community.
Cabin Radio obtained minutes from one of the coalition’s earliest meetings. The notes taken describe the group’s goal as designing a strategy that moves beyond “Band-Aid approaches to supporting the homeless population in Inuvik by considering holistic and integrated housing and supportive programming.”
What happened after Housing NWT took control?
At this point, Housing NWT announced it would take over operations of both the warming centre and the homeless shelter.
A July 16, 2021 letter signed by the GNWT’s manager of homelessness and community planning, Renay Ristoff, stated: “We hope this new approach will help address staffing and training issues, so that the community members accessing these services will be provided with consistent support and be able to have a voice in the shelter operations and any programming they wish to participate in.”
That same month, Cabin Radio followed up with Housing NWT to better understand the takeover.
“Our partners at the Inuvik emergency warming centre suffered numerous issues in trying to maintain a safe and supportive program, including the resignations and departures of successive managers, numerous board resignations, continuous board vacancies, and insufficient staff training,” Ben Fraser, a spokesperson for the housing agency, wrote in an email.
Eleanor Young, Housing NWT’s president, said in a recent interview: “There was some concern at the time that if we didn’t get a little more involved than we were, the struggles would just continue and we could risk the ability of the shelters to continue at all.”
Not long after the GNWT takeover was announced, Ristoff attended a July 28 meeting of Inuvik’s homelessness coalition. She said all shelter staff would become GNWT employees and be trained to work at both the wet and dry shelters.
Ristoff said people accessing the shelters would be offered case management, and that Housing NWT would focus on developing skill sets of people using the shelters, such as cooking or art.
She said the agency was considering combining both shelters in one building, and that both community boards would be replaced with a governance board made up of people with lived experience accessing the shelters, as well as leadership from the Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and other community partners.
How did the takeover pan out?
Peggy Day, from the dry shelter’s board, said she initially felt relieved when she heard Ristoff’s intentions. The territory finally seemed to understand the community’s needs, she thought.
“They promised that they’ll train our staff, they’ll hire the staff … they’ll be there to support them, and all we need to do is our programs, our front-line work with the clients,” Day said. “And we don’t need to worry about management and the financial side.”
She said the board was slightly skeptical of Housing NWT’s promises but she wanted the shelter’s staff to receive the higher pay the GNWT would offer.
The warming centre reopened under GNWT management in September 2021. Day said that at the time, Christina Kasook was running both the wet and dry shelters while Housing NWT tried to fill the position of wet shelter supervisor.
Day said Housing NWT also took over management of the dry shelter by October 1.
Ristoff was the GNWT employee responsible for managing the shelters, a role she performed from Yellowknife.
“Right now … we don’t have any homelessness staff in each of our regions,” Young said in an interview with Cabin Radio.
“We only have a couple of staff here in Yellowknife. So [Renay] has been supporting from here and going to Inuvik as required.”
Frustration at what is perceived to be a lack of consistent management in Inuvik came up many times in interviews for this report.
Day said after the territory took it over, the dry shelter board’s work doubled at the same time as its views became irrelevant to the shelter’s management.
“We were getting people stopping in our house and at our offices, messaging us, phoning us … we did way more work than as a volunteer board before Housing took over,” she said.
She said she heard from the dry shelter’s manager, Kasook, that she had difficulties reaching Housing NWT when she needed assistance or had management questions.
“All she can do is support [the clients] and try to help them through the system,” Day said. “She couldn’t make any judgment calls.”
Kasook’s experience, as described by Day, was shared by others who staffed the shelters under Housing NWT’s management.
A staff member who had worked at the wet shelter told Cabin Radio she felt disrespected by the people using the shelter and unequipped to support them.
One man briefly served as the wet shelter’s manager but resigned after two weeks because he felt he had no agency in supporting the people using the service.
He said there were several ways he tried to support the community, including running an Elders’ program and distributing Canada Goose jackets in the winter.
While Covid-19 was often given as the reason for restrictive government policies, this man said it felt like no matter what he tried to do, he ran into “red tape.”
“I think I’ve been a well-respected community member for many years, and I’ve never been so disrespected, especially from somebody that’s not even from our community,” he said in an interview with Cabin Radio.
In a Facebook post announcing his resignation, he expressed frustration about what he found to be a lack of support from Housing NWT.
“It would be nice to see support coming out of Yellowknife and our regional director. None.”
Young said she was not surprised that working with new procedures was difficult for managers on the ground in Inuvik’s shelters.
“Of course, Housing is a government organization, so whether it comes to staff oversight or how we purchase things … all of those things would follow our approved procedures,” she said, justifying these procedures as necessary for the protection of public money.
“If you’re working outside of government, many of those things can be done differently.”
A woman who served on the wet shelter’s board, quoted earlier in this article, said Housing NWT burned through three managers at the warming centre before arriving at the current manager.
Young questioned whether this number was accurate but did say Housing NWT had seen significant staff turnover since being involved.
“It has been very, very difficult to keep staff there … and I think that was probably an issue prior to us being involved,” she said.
What happened to the promise of training?
One of Housing NWT’s key promises in its takeover of both shelters was the provision of proper training to all staff.
Housing NWT spokesperson Ben Fraser described the extent of the training to date in an email to Cabin Radio earlier this month.
“When staff at the shelters were hired as GNWT employees they were given access to the GNWT suite of training opportunities,” Fraser said.
Staff were asked to complete online training courses on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, conflict resolution, food safety, mental health first aid, and Indigenous cultural awareness and sensitivity. They were also asked to complete training related to a respectful workplace and information and privacy.
Fraser said Housing NWT plans to work with the new operator of the shelters, once selected, to identify any other training needed to sustain operations.
Shelter community members Cabin Radio spoke with said they had yet to see any evidence of that training.
Cara Bryant, another spokesperson for Housing NWT, said staff turnover at the wet shelter was high in part because shelter workers were sometimes required to work with clients who were “intoxicated or under the influence of other substances.”
Bryant said the agency is in the process of developing training for all shelter workers to address these issues and “ensure consistency and appropriate levels of service in all shelters.”
Rachel Schooley is an occupational therapist with a background in harm reduction and long-term housing support. She lives and works in Inuvik.
For the past year and a half, she has taken on various roles supporting the town’s unhoused people. She was one of about a dozen community members that formed the homelessness coalition after the warming centre closed last spring.
“The staff at the shelters are not receiving adequate support from the government,” she said. “They are understaffed and overworked.”
Schooley said proper training for shelter workers is essential to providing this service and should include education around what trauma does to the brain and why substance use can be a coping mechanism.
She said the GNWT online training modules made available to shelter staff are not enough.
“They’re not adequate for supporting the specific population of people that are accessing the warming centre. Conflict resolution in an office space versus conflict resolution when you’re working with people that maybe aren’t sober? These are very different contexts,” she said.
“To provide a really generalized training for such a vulnerable population, that’s not OK.”
Was the new governance board ever installed?
Housing NWT said it would establish a new governance model for the shelters that would do away with the need for volunteer boards of directors.
Almost a year after Housing NWT took over operations, no such model had been established.
“Housing NWT is working alongside the Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, and Town of Inuvik to develop an approach that will aim to resolve the identified issues and undertake a collaborative operating model going forward,” Housing NWT representative Cara Bryant wrote in an email to Cabin Radio last month.
“This strengthened governance model, which will include residents with lived experience, will help ensure that the programming is respectful, culturally appropriate, and inclusive.”
Questioned on the nature of this collaboration, Housing NWT said it alone is responsible for the day-to-day administration and operation of the shelters. However, Housing NWT is a member of a community advisory working group that provides guidance for the shelters in Inuvik, which it said also included “senior officials” from the IRC, GTC, and Town of Inuvik.
Tom Weegar, the chief executive officer of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, said he was not aware of any meeting having taken place between the GTC and Housing NWT on the topic of homelessness since he took over as director in February.
“We were prepared to play a role in the solution, it’s just we weren’t willing to be the solution,” Weegar said, explaining that taking on operation of the shelters fell outside GTC’s mandate, which is focused on implementation of the Gwich’in land claim agreement.
The Town of Inuvik’s senior administrator, Grant Hood, confirmed that besides offering a building for the dry shelter, the town has had no involvement in operation of the shelters.
Cabin Radio did not hear back from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation before publication about the extent of Housing NWT’s consultation.
Young said she attended a meeting in December with the IRC, GTC and Town of Inuvik where all three organizations expressed interest in bigger-picture questions about how to support unhoused people in Inuvik.
For now, though, as Housing NWT is in the process of shifting operational responsibility for the shelters once again, the future of any kind of governance board is unclear.
“A decision on what a board might look like with the new operator has not been finalized,” Young said.
“It will depend in part on who the successful operator is and whether or not they have an existing board structure that might work for this kind of oversight and community input, or not.”
She said Housing NWT will engage again with the IRC and GTC before any final contracts are signed with a new operator.
What about supporting people living with addictions?
Since the early days of the warming centre, there have been differing opinions about the service a wet shelter offers to the community.
The shelter’s first home was Inuvik’s Anglican church.
In 2015, the church said it could no longer house the shelter. The church’s pastor said the bills to keep the church open through the winter were getting too expensive.
He also said he was not confident that providing a place for people using substances to sleep safely at night was the right approach to supporting them.
According to Day, this concern was present within the unhoused community from the day the warming centre opened.
“They were against it,” she said. “They said it’s like a green light to say: ‘Go ahead and go get drunk, you have somewhere warm and safe to sleep.'”
Day said the dry shelter lost most of its clients to the warming centre when it opened.
The woman previously quoted who served on the wet shelter’s board explained that offering wet shelter services with staff not trained for the job was bound to be challenging.
“You need persons well trained in how to deescalate conflict. And I think it’s too easy, without that kind of knowledge and training, to get caught up into further chaos, you know, further crankiness on both sides,” she said.
One woman interviewed said staff at the wet shelter refused to serve food to people who were intoxicated because they worried about the potential choking hazard.
“It can be a significant issue in dealing with difficult clients, and knowing what to look for, to make sure that health and safety is always being considered for these clients, and that we’re looking out for their best interest,” Housing NWT president Eleanor Young said.
This perspective – that working with people who are actively using substances can be challenging – was echoed throughout interviews for this report.
But many, including the woman who sat on the wet shelter’s board, believe offering a safe space for these people to live is still essential.
“Nobody should be without a space of their own, no matter what their addiction,” she said.
“Some of the staff and, I think, maybe a couple of board members didn’t believe in it. It made them nervous that we were enabling.”
What is harm reduction and what shape could it take in Inuvik?
Tension around whether the wet shelter is helping people to live with addictions, or enabling those addictions, is complicated to address.
Southern approaches to social work use a harm reduction framework to support people living with addictions.
Broadly, harm reduction involves running managed alcohol programs and safe injection sites as a way of supporting people struggling with addictions issues and reducing harm to people who use drugs.
Harm reduction was a big part of Schooley’s training before she moved to Inuvik.
Schooley explained that while a standard understanding of addiction places it opposite to sobriety – and makes sobriety the goal – harm reduction takes a different approach.
“The more we learn about addiction,” she said, “especially with people who have experienced trauma, we’re learning the opposite is actually connection.”
When Schooley first moved to Inuvik, she thought she could easily transfer what she knew about harm reduction in the south to her work with the town’s unhoused community. But she encountered what she characterizes as stigma and misunderstanding.
“Folks who maybe have been through substance use and come out the other side, where sobriety is the only way they know .. it’s been hard for them to understand why a harm reduction approach may be helpful for others,” she explained.
When she shifted the language she used from harm reduction to community care, she found people were much more open to the concept.
“If we’re looking at connection as the opposite of addiction, then what we really need to go back to is how do we care for each other as a community?” Schooley said.
Part of this care, she said, involves understanding why some people may use substances to cope with trauma.
“People can really understand what it means to take care of each other in a community and lift each other up, and how to do that in the safest way possible.”
Update: June 22, 2022 – 18:09 MT. This article has been amended to correct the attribution of one set of remarks regarding the wet shelter.