Nunatsiaq News
FEATURES: -none- January 16, 2004 - 1:46 pm

Down and out at 35 below

Iqaluit's homeless: mainly Inuit, mostly ignored


No earthquake or war has hit Nunavut, but the casualties of social upheaval fill the tables at Mean Gene’s fast food restaurant in the Northmart grocery store in Iqaluit.

On the most frigid day of this year, the restaurant overflows with penniless customers who make a cup of coffee last all day because they don’t have a job to go to or a home to call their own.

Northmart is a magnet for the city’s homeless - a situation that store manager Glenn Cousins deals with day after day as he grapples with his desire to help and his frustration over a role he’s not sure his store should play.

“It puts me in an awkward position,” Cousins says.

That’s because sometimes customers don’t like to pass in front of the crowd at the store’s entrance and they complain it’s hard to find a free table at Mean Gene’s. Occasionally some loiterers try to bum a cigarette or an argument breaks out. The sale of drugs has also moved in with the new clientele.

The problem, at least as Cousins sees it, is that the city has been so busy concentrating on development that it hasn’t looked at the growing numbers of people, overwhelmingly Inuit, who have no place to go.

These Inuit men and women of all ages are visible signs of homelessness in Iqaluit where some estimate up 10 to 15 per cent of the adult population is homeless - that is, about half of the total Inuit adult population of Nunavut’s capital city.

People are homeless for many reasons. Some are homeless because they are mentally ill. Or they may be former inmates, newcomers to Iqaluit, battered women, alcoholics, drug addicts and even members of the workforce who have no subsidized housing or don’t earn enough to pay market rents. Some are children.

Not every person who lacks a home is totally homeless. Some live in overcrowded situations, where residents have to sleep in shifts, or with families who don’t want them. Many have no idea where they will sleep, in what house, and with whom, on a daily basis and have no fixed address.

Every night Iqaluit’s 14-bed shelter is full.

Josh Teemotee-Mittima, the executive director of Iqaluit’s Illitiit Society, a non-profit organization that supports the Oqota shelter, says homeless Iqalungmiut are ignored.

Teemotee-Mittima believes Nunavut has imported a bureaucracy of civil servants, mainly from the Atlantic provinces, who don’t see or care about the community’s growing social crisis.

“Down South, there are a lot of jobs, lots of support agencies. We don’t have that up here. When we import a new bureaucrat up here and they have no contacts, they don’t realize the impact of their decisions here. That’s the reality - they don’t see the impact. They’ll never see it because it’s perfectly acceptable in the Maritimes to crap on the native people,” Teemotee-Mittima says.

“They have no stake in improving the North because they’re too busy trying to make ends meet.”

Teemotee-Mittima sees a “mad, vicious circle” where Inuit aren’t supported, can’t resolve their issues, and social problems, such as suicide, family violence and addictions, multiply.

A lot of Inuit are still too polite, he says, and too taken in by the promise of Nunavut although the jobs they could have and the housing they need are further away than ever.

“People don’t put two and two together. While the Premier makes more speeches, the situation is getting worse. The anger goes round and round. No one realizes how much discontent there is.”

Teemotee-Mittima says bureaucrats with lots of paper qualifications have pushed Inuit from many front-line jobs dealing with social issues, and, as government ends up doing less for people who need help with their daily life - for instance, making sure rent is paid from their social assistance - they end up on Iqaluit’s mean streets.

“It’s all in the name of making Nunavut work, and it’s going to get worse,” he says.

Beyond government insensitivity, a range of personal and economic reasons can also cause homelessness.

All employees who live in housing furnished by their employers are at risk of homelessness as they can be asked to vacate within a week of losing their job.

They may not qualify for social housing. Some who do qualify sometimes don’t pay their rent or they trash their houses and end up evicted.

To get on the list for social housing, potential tenants must reside in Iqaluit for at least a year and have no rent arrears. Those with a history of property destruction or unpaid bills can find themselves homeless, faced with the choice of shacking up with family, living in a shack on the beach or staying at the shelter.

Between 150 to 200 new social housing units are needed, about the same number as a study of housing needs indicated 15 years ago when there were only 20 to 30 homeless people in Iqaluit. Although the need continues, vandalism, wear and tear and disrespect for property also cost the housing authority thousands of dollars a year per unit. Many tenants owe back rent. This also means there’s less money for new housing units.

With a waiting period of up to two years for new tenants and little construction of new social housing units planned, Susan Spring, manager of the Iqaluit Housing Authority, says it risks becoming the “unhousing” authority.

Spring says Iqaluit’s homeless problem is still not as acute as in Toronto where the number of homeless probably exceeds the entire population of Iqaluit, where gangs, guns, prostitution and hard drugs are part of the scene and street people freeze when the temperatures drop.

Ed Picco, Nunavut’s minister of health and social services, who is also responsible for homelessness, says the territorial government is doing what it can to deal with the problem.

“We are the only jurisdiction in Canada, provincial or territorial, that has a dedicated minister for homelessness.”

Picco said the problem is that federal money - about $200 million annually - is distributed on a per capita basis.

Despite Ottawa’s commitment to spend money fighting homelessness, non-profit organizations like Iqaluit’s Illitiit Society are left to take up the slack in social programs and run social services on a shoe string, which some level of government once looked after.

Although Iqaluit’s homeless problem isn’t new, Teemotee-Mittima says Nunavut has made a bad situation worse by removing the few supports that mentally ill and unemployable Inuit had in the community, while handing out jobs and housing to others. A “horrible learning curve” lies ahead.

Cousins says lack of housing deprives people of a “fundamental” tool to develop self-esteem and become stable members of the workforce.

Although it’s far from a solution, a supervised drop-in centre, Cousins suggests, would make a big difference to the people he sees every day at the store.

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