Iqaluit shack fire sparks discussions about housing the homeless
“We need more housing. More social housing. More affordable housing”
Another shack along Iqaluit’s waterfront burst into flames this past weekend, displacing five people.
On the heels of a boat shelter fire just two weeks ago, concerned Iqaluit residents say the latest fire serves as a reminder of the need to tackle homelessness and provide more housing options in the city.
A young couple, Malina and Tommy, spent months building the shack almost a year ago, and afterwards let another family move in with them. They were away the weekend of the fire.
The other couple occupying the shed, Jason and Elizabeth, say they stepped out on Saturday, July 14 to go to the store and when they returned, the shack was on fire.
Near midnight on Saturday, Mayor Madeleine Redfern posted on social media that Jason and Elizabeth’s family had been given a tent from Red Cross and were seeking donations of clothing and a foam mattress. Besides the tent, Redfern says Red Cross provided the family with four new sleeping bags, clothing and groceries.
“Red Cross has done what it can according to their program and policies. We’re lucky Red Cross provides support in emergencies—as they have for the past seven years in Iqaluit. I assist when requested,” Redfern wrote to Nunatsiaq News.
“We need more housing. More social housing. More affordable housing. More Inuit hires in government with staff housing provided. Inuit organizations and Inuit corporations [need] to be part of housing solutions too,” Redfern said.
Following the shack fire, Arctic Ventures offered donations to Jason and Elizabeth’s family, including a tent cover, foam mattresses and a mini propane heater, while Baffin Gas also gave the family some more necessities. Jason and Elizabeth’s family plan to share these items with the couple who built the shack.
The community donations are mainly due to the advocacy of Qaumariaq Inuqtaqau, who called for donations on social media and then went with the family to stores on Sunday to ask for help.
He has a post on the Shame on Canada Facebook page to arrange donations.
For some homeless in Iqaluit, staying in shelters is not always an option, homeless advocates say.
Not only is the men’s shelter regularly over-capacity, but there are some good reasons for why someone would choose to take the risk of living on the beach.
Some beach shack dwellers want to stay with their partner at night, since the shelters are segregated by gender. Jason and Elizabeth said that was their case.
Others may struggle with substance abuse, which could mean extreme withdrawal symptoms if they had to observe the shelter’s no-alcohol policies throughout the night.
And people with sexual traumas find sleeping alone in a shack safer than sharing a room with 10 to 12 others.
The Uquutaq men’s shelter plans to create a transitional housing project, which will increase the amount of beds available to the homeless and provide social programming to teach men how to live independently. They are still securing funding.
In December 2014, one Iqaluit shack fire ended in a fatality.
In 2016, a man was set on fire in his shack.
And last year, a man burned to death in a boat fire in the canoe he was living on at the beach.
Iqaluit housing prices are among the highest in Canada. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,597.
A common theme for those who find themselves homeless, Inuqtaqau says, is that they have racked up a debt with Nunavut Housing and cannot rent again or are working in low-wage service and retail jobs even though they have applied for public housing. The waiting period can be years.
Then once you fall through the cracks, it is nearly impossible to climb back out, Inuqtaqau says.
Inuqtaqau did, eventually. But it took him six years of sleeping on couches and in shelters before he was approved for public housing. Now he has a home, he still works and spends most of his spare time advocating for Inuit land claim rights and supporting the homeless shack dwellers.
Inuqtaqau says he spent a short while living in beach shacks when he was homeless but found it too dangerous and cold. He couldn’t sleep well enough for work.
The couple who built the shack that burned this weekend says they have been on a waiting list for public housing for two years.
In those six years waiting for housing, Inuqtaqau survived homelessness because he avoided the shacks if he could. He had friends whose couches he could sleep on.
Six years of street life and all he burnt was his eyebrows off, once, with a Coleman stove.
It scared Inuqtaqau from wanting to sleep in a shack again.