Hotels are emptying themselves of the homeless who have been filling their rooms all winter. Now that the COVID-19 restrictions are falling, hoteliers are rejoicing and are opening their doors to visitors from all over the world.
People living in hotels across the city have been told to move out by June 1, according to the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. The eviction notices were delivered in April. Other motels quietly switched from monthly rates to daily rates, far exceeding residents’ ability to pay and far exceeding the lodging allowance for welfare recipients.
On May 31, several nongovernmental organizations with an interest in housing met with the Yukon government’s Department of Health and Human Services, the Yukon Housing Corporation (YHC) and the City of Whitehorse to discuss the Court’s report on housing was released days earlier. The focus later shifted from the report’s dire warning to the emerging crisis on the streets of Whitehorse.
Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, told the News June 1 that “the number of people who have nowhere to go is increasing dramatically and today is a big, bad day for a lot of people.”
Alarm bells got louder as people started looking for camping gear.
“The city is concerned about people camping in the clay cliffs because sometimes people come there when they don’t have a suitable spot,” Craig said.
Now that the escarpment area is closed, dislocated individuals and families are looking for other options.
Late in the evening of June 2, the Yukon Status of Women Council sent a letter signed and endorsed by 12 other nongovernmental organizations, urging the city council to take extraordinary measures to ensure the homeless can find safe places to live. The Whitehorse shelter is not a safe place, especially for women and children, advocates said.
The letter is requesting a special and temporary provision under the Parks and Public Spaces Bylaws to allow camping at Robert Service Campground and Takhini Arena.
It also calls for “certain green spaces, church parking lots and other privately owned plots to be permitted to allow for coordinated, centralized or dispersed camping”.
concerns from above
Craig attended a meeting with government officials on May 31 and said the seriousness of the situation was recognized.
The Auditor General, too, was evidently concerned long before the hotels were booked by travelers and the clay cliffs began to slide.
The Auditor General’s report concluded that the Yukon Housing Corporation and the Department of Health and Human Services had failed to provide homeless or vulnerable Yukoners at risk of homelessness with access to housing that met their needs.
Hotels and motels are not the answer, nor are temporary camps. Neena MacKinnon is the coordinated access coordinator at the Safe at Home Society and says she doesn’t like to refer to hotel rooms as residential units.
“We know that in most cases this is not the case, it is not even appropriate. They have no way to cook food or store groceries, or something people have told us is they don’t even have a phone because it’s a monthly fee.”
The Yukon Convention Bureau said hotel rooms in Whitehorse were impossible to find, and many would go for more than $300 a night, and that the loss of 82 rooms in the Coast High Country was being felt by travelers. Craig said the motels, where many people wintered, now cost $129 to $159 a night.
Craig and MacKinnon both noted that losing the Chilkoot Trail Inn in January changed things significantly. Most of these residents had settled in long-term, but when the building was deemed uninhabitable, many of these residents were relocated to the Riverview Hotel, where they lived until June 1. Many of these people are again looking for accommodation.
Colin McDowell, a vice president of Yukon Housing Corporation, points to new affordable units coming online soon. McDowell said he expects the 47-unit blended housing project at Fourth Avenue and Robert Service Way to welcome new residents by August and September this year. McDowell also mentioned new units under construction and work in progress at the Whistle Bend subdivision.
The Cornerstone project, built by Opportunities Yukon (formerly Challenge Disability Resource Group) at the end of Main Street, will have filled 45 supportive and affordable single-person rentals by June 15, according to Executive Director Jillian Hardie.
But for now, MacKinnon says, “We recognize that with 195 people currently affected by homelessness, and no hotels to stay in, there are no other options.”
“We expect that [camping] will happen; We don’t support that there should be a camp or camping in town, but there really is nowhere else but camping.”
The auditor’s report states that from August 2019 to August 2021, an average of 75 households per month lived in hotels.
A Health and Human Services spokeswoman, Clare Robson, said that in April 53 households used their welfare payments to pay for hotel accommodation.
Safe at Home reported that 46 people on their list of names were living in hotels in mid-May. The nominative list contains only those persons who have applied to be put on a list in order to obtain accommodation.
Yukon Housing Corporation’s public housing waiting list is listed as 463 in the auditor’s report for 2021.
Jayme Curtis, acting manager at the Whitehorse shelter, said they only count occupied beds per night. They do not report on the frequency or length of stays by an individual.
Craig says more people enter homelessness than exit it.
Aja Mason of the Yukon Status of Women Council said June 1 that Indigenous women are overwhelmingly at the highest risk of becoming homeless.
A case management system to track homelessness has been available since 2019, according to MacKinnon. It is not used by the territorial government for privacy reasons, despite recommendations from federal agencies.
The Homelessness Information Management System is available as a case management system for agencies, including the Yukon government, to help manage, track, and assist the homeless and vulnerable. The system has been available since 2019. It uses unique identifiers and can aggregate data from different agencies to get a comprehensive picture of what supports are needed where.
Clear a path
The letter, presented to Whitehorse City Council, concludes, “As community partners, we actively commit to working with all levels of government to utilize all the resources at our disposal. We have a collective opportunity to be proactive and show that we see and hear the urgent needs of individuals and families affected by homelessness.”
Craig puts it a little more bluntly, asking, “Please step out of the way or step up or whatever each of us needs to do to support people who don’t even have a hotel room to live in anymore.”
READ MORE: The scathing Auditor General’s findings on Yukon housing underscore long-standing problems
Contact Lawrie Crawford at [email protected]