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.