Social Policy

FALVO – Ten Things to Know About Homelessness in Canada’s North

Nick Falvo on the state of homelessness and housing in Northern Canada. Falvo is a PhD Candidate in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.
On March 5, I gave a presentation on homelessness in Canada’s North at a panel at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association. The other presenters on the panel were Peter Collings, Carmen Springer, Josh Louwerse and Sally Carraher. My presentation was loosely based on previous research I’ve done in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and the Yukon.

Here are 10 things one should know about homelessness in Canada’s North:

1. Construction costs are higher in Canada’s North than in most southern jurisdictions. This is especially true in Nunavut. A major reason for this is the cost associated with transporting work crews and supplies to rural communities (i.e. communities located outside of larger regional centres such as Yellowknife and Whitehorse). These costs are highest for communities that lack road access to regional centres (i.e. ‘fly-in’ communities).

2. Once housing is built, it deteriorates more quickly in the North than it would in a southern jurisdiction. As Luigi Zanasi notes: “The [Northern] climate results in housing deteriorating faster. Large temperature differentials between outside and inside houses in winter lead to large amounts of condensation, resulting in mould and premature rot. Movement due to permafrost freezing and thawing also takes a toll on houses” (Zanasi, 2007, p. iii).

3. Operating costs for housing are usually higher in the North. As Zanasi notes,this is due largely to the need for higher energy consumption in a colder climate and higher energy prices. Zanasi also notes: “In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the cost of drinking water and sewage disposal is extremely high as houses depend on trucked water delivery and sewage tank pumpouts” (Zanasi, 2007, p. 21). Another reason for higher operating costs has to do with proximity to larger urban centres—i.e. it’s expensive to transport trades people and supplies to rural areas (especially ‘fly in’ communities).

4. Federal funding for social housing in Canada’s North is declining.  As I’ve noted before (both here and here) federal funding assists each of Canada’s northern territories to operate housing for lower-income households. The annual funding from the federal government is declining at an alarming pace. 

5. There is very little supportive housing in Canada’s North. Supportive housing is permanent housing for marginalized persons; it typically involves subsidy from government both to make the housing affordable to the low-income tenant and to provide professional support to the tenant household. Historically in Canada, this model of housing has generally been seen as a sensible, cost-effective response to homelessness. What’s more, it has recently been the subject of a very ambitious randomized controlled trial in five Canadian cities (which I’ve previously written about here). Yet, there is very little supportive housing in Canada’s North.

6. Conditions in homeless shelters in the North leave much to be desired. At Yellowknife’s men’s shelter, men must sleep one foot apart from one another on thin mats. This is the same shelter that experienced a tuberculosis outbreak in 2007-2008. At Whitehorse’s only emergency shelter, women must often sleep in the same common area as men.

7. There is insufficient ‘harm reduction’ programming in Canada’s North. Harm reduction’ refers to a public health response to drug and alcohol use whereby an effort is made to reduce the harm caused to a person (but to not necessarily aim for abstinence).Examples of harm reduction initiatives in other Canadian jurisdictions include managed-alcohol programs and needle-exchange programs. One important example of harm reduction programming in the North is the work of Blood Ties Four Directions Centre (located in Whitehorse). I should also note that emergency shelters in both Yellowknife and Whitehorse allow residents to be intoxicated (provided their behavior is manageable)—this too can be considered a form of harm reduction. That said, I would argue that there is a strong need for more harm reduction initiatives in the North. For example, I think it would be good public policy for each respective territorial government to implement its own managed-alcohol program. (Further reading on managed-alcohol programs include: this 2006 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal; this 2014 article from CBC News Thunder Bay; this 2014 study by the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia; and this 2014 article in Northern News Service.)

8. The “housing first” philosophy is not widely embraced throughout Canada’s North. Though there is a growing belief throughout North America that providing permanent housing to a homeless person is the most effective way to ‘fix’ their homelessness, that belief—often known as “housing first”—is not held prevalently throughout Canada’s North. (It may be that results of the aforementioned randomized controlled trial may change this mindset.) 

9. Access to affordable housing remains a major challenge in Canada’s North. To access public housing (which is a means-tested benefit) a person must usually apply for it.In Yellowknife, most social housing is administered by the Yellowknife Housing Authority, which prioritizes its bachelor and one-bedroom units for persons who are either over the age of 60 or who have a physical disability. Thus: “No single, unattached person, unless in one of those two categories, has ever or will ever get into a public housing unit administered by the Yellowknife Housing Authority, under the current system” (Falvo, 2011, p. 11). In Whitehorse, it can take up to nine months for a person to just have their name put on the social housing wait list (for reasons I discuss here); and once they’re on the list, they can be removed from it if they do not ‘check back’ with a social wait list administrator at least once a month. (Needless to say, all of this runs contrary to the “housing first” philosophy discussed above.)

10. When considering homelessness in Canada’s North, it’s important to understand migration patterns. An evaluation of Yellowknife’s day shelter done in 2011 found that just one-third of the people using it were actually from Yellowknife—almost half were from “other NWT communities” and one-fifth were from “outside of the NWT.” Put differently, addressing homelessness in Yellowknife benefits residents from throughout the NWT, just as addressing poverty in rural areas of the NWT can help prevent homelessness in Yellowknife. (My colleague Julia Christensen has done some excellent research on this.)



All of my research in Canada’s North has been done under the supervision of Professor Frances Abele. The NWT research was done in partnership with Arlene Haché and the Centre for Northern Families; the Yukon research was done in partnership with Bill Thomas, Christina Sim and the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. I have yet to do research in Nunavut, but hope to someday.

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  • GLessard

    Excellent compilation!

  • Nancy Vail

    Excellent presentation

  • Larry Kazdan

    Many thanks for your most informative post.

    Note last sentence below:

    “M(odern) M(onetary) T(heory) provides a way to run the economy at near full capacity without triggering much additional inflation, although the inflation rate could
    rise somewhat if the economy boomed. MMT is not just theoretical. In
    effect its greatest practitioner, without admitting to it, has been the
    Republican Party in the U.S., but only when in power: it cuts taxes to
    the wealthy and increases spending on prisons, the military, and war,
    and lets the deficit increase. And it works. When the economy is
    depressed economic growth, job creation and deficits increase, and
    inflation and interest rates remain low. Progressives would not want to
    use MMT that way. We would want more jobs, producing civilian goods and
    services, fairly distributed, while subject to the constraint of
    potential output. And we would have the federal government spend tens of
    billions more annually on the programs and infrastructure we so
    desperately lack.”


    Modern Monetary Theory in Canada

  • Justin

    Thanks for the post. You have some good points. I’d just like to make one technical correction. Permafrost does not freeze and thaw. The active layer is where you see the seasonal freeze/thaw cycle.

    • AM

      Good catch… But expect it to get less “perma” in coming decades, thanks to climate change. That’ll produce a whole slew of problems, including architectural ones.

  • Big fat pink elephant

    Informative article, im just missing you naming the big pink elephant in the room and that is the effects of increasing housing in the nwt, especially yellowknife. Yellowknife has a big home owners population. The rents already so high, due to lack of housing and competition so people might as well own. These people have to have a good healthy financial record to be able to get a morgage for a piece of questionable trailer… I dont know if you are chequed out the house prices here but a trailer can fetch more than $400,000! Whih is insane because its ONLY a trailer. It is not so much what falvo mentions above that drives the homelessness and home affordability, its simple supply and demand. Yes that easy! The housing / homelessness problem is so easy to solve, the real problem is willingness to solve it. One of the MLAs, i believe it is McLeod, categorically refuse to allow more plots for building. Claiming it will ruin the environment…… *eye-role* x2. I dont know if has looked at a map lately but the NWT is the size of europe with a proportionately tiny population; allowing more plots for building is not goingto put a dent in the environment. I honestly believe that is just a shameful cover up for the fact that allowing more property delopment will burst the bubble in the housing market. And who wants the value of their to decrease which they just paid half a million, to fix the homelessness problem? Because, lets face it, when it comes to people’s pockets how much do you really care about that sucker on the street?…

  • richard

    It is good to define the issues… Almost all of these can be solved with an innovative approaches.. Start by looking at each problem and generate potential solutions.. Many minds on this can definitely broach these issues.

    a) design geo- agnostic structures… = can be done to minimize cost difference.. of properties… Army tech builds a 10,000 sq foot building with 10 people in 24 hours… can be applied to the north.. this plus very low land costs.. make it much much cheaper than the south

    b) deteriorates faster– use goods that dont deteriorate… – moisture and sun is big wear factor …. in south .. not so much in the north … there is many items that are very inexpensive that can last 200 years plus

    c) operating costs are higher- of course if you oil as your energy source…..- but there is more than enough energy to run every house on net zero basis.. does not have to use any exogenous energy for MUCH cheaper than

    d)federal housing $ are declining and will continue to do so .. Most wealthy immigrants come to canada – are supranationals and actually collect negative taxes even if house is worth $3 million .plus- . more are coming and not going to change– they are 20 % of chinese millionaires that are what to come to canada and they are supranationals that are not going to pay taxes…– sad but true… – So look at a) b) c) to get more for ones money .. The $250k per family transfer is probably going to be under more pressure not less in the future… Canada is losing its key manufacturing base ( sad but true)

    things are probably as good they are going to get sans a resource windfall in the north .. So

    e) supportive housing– should be extended .. ! 2% interest rates allow for a growth spurt in supportive housing using a)b)c) techniques .. this is a win for all parties and should be a major political platform.. This kind of program is good for all .

    f) housing shelters look to a) b) c)

    g)harm reduction programs need to be a priority… and building peoples soul is more than important…..

    h)housing first– again A) b) c) … so much more housing stock can be done so much cheaper – last longer and run so so much cheaper than current antiquated systems

    Again- use southern housing techniques using… southern building materials in an extreme environment .. and expect an adequate solution is the first item on agenda that is plain wrong.

    -=– There are circumpolar areas that do not use exogenous energy , that can make affordable hyper insulated structures that do not deteriorate . Innovation – look at the problem one line at a time is the way ..

    There is people in the high middle north 70 Latitude – growing all food 24/7/365 with excellent low cost housing structures using virtually no government hand ups…. Utilize these facilities as step one to helping solve the problem.. Outlining the same thing ad nauseum is part of Einstein’s definition of “insanity” One needs a deductive approach..

    There is a lot of resources out there that can help solve many of the issues… One just has to want to do it….

    Take cost items line by line…. and bring in innovation…… Simple things like replacing pampers.. – save money – help the environment create local economy – can be one .. —

    it goes from there . . but 100% one can build much much cheaper / better / cleaner / larger / much more environmental structures than are done now…

    need better advocacy to follow people who are doing it other circumpolar areas..

  • richard

    Supportive housing can be sustainable / non inflationary / budget balancing.. This PPP company can have balanced books…. Key is to make housing that people own a big % of mortgage free and have a “occupancy” cost that rewards independence.. Utilize best green practices .. With really intelligent planning almost all of this can be paid from energy savings…. The units need to made by locals trained in 30 days or less. This can be done today with cascading support systems. ( see things like ocular.rift and twitter periscope for remote support systems) … want examples… can show u