Homeless in Iqaluit: the people no one cares for


Special to Nunatsiaq News

Yes, it is true, homelessness is a reality in Iqaluit, as it is in many other communities in Nunavut and the rest of Canada. Everybody knows it, and most of us wish that someone else would take care of the problem.

Based on my experiences with the Iqaluit Emergency Shelter and the Oqota Emergency Shelter in the past, I suggest that we start addressing homelessness by answering the following questions:

Who is homeless, and how have they become homeless?
Who has done anything about homelessness in Iqaluit in the past, and why are they no longer doing it?
What government departments and community agencies or organizations should be responsible for tackling the homelessness problem, and why are they not able to better deal with the issue?
What can homeless people themselves do to overcome their plight, and why are they not doing it?
What can I as a resident, or business person of Nunavut do to solve the homelessness problem in Iqaluit, and why am I not doing it?
When we asked the clients of the Oqota Emergency Shelter why they were homeless, these were the most common reasons given: the high cost of rent; unemployment; substance-abuse problems; family problems; and outstanding debts with the local Housing Corporation.

People who are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs are not allowed to stay at the homelsess shelter, but we do know that some of the clients spend whatever money they have on alcohol and drugs. As a result of their addictions, they end up unemployable, destitute and homeless.

There are many other homeless people in Iqaluit, who stay with relatives in overcrowded homes. We have not listened to their answers, but likely, their reasons would be very similar.

Long term goals

From this brief survey of the immediate causes of homelessness, I suggest that the long term goal of the community must be to ensure that homeless people have access to:

Homes with affordable and realistic rents;
Employment-support programs to help them enter and remain in the workforce;
Effective substance-abuse treatment and prevention programs;
Assistance in paying their outstanding debts, so they qualify for social housing.
Since the provision of emergency shelter for the homeless is our immediate concern, let’s examine some of the past attempts that have been made to address the problem.

Ten years ago, a group of volunteers started the Iqaluit Emergency Shelter, but intitial interest in the project dropped off. Volunteers left the Iqaluit Emergency Shelter Society’s board of directors and in the end two members alone kept the shelter running.

Funding for the old shelter was totally inadequate and the building could no longer be properly maintained. So, in the summer of 1998 the Iqaluit Emergency Shelter was finally closed.

The Illitiit Society, with the support from some volunteers and the NWT Housing Corporation, were recently able to get the new Oqota Emergency Shelter going. However, the Illitiit Society, which has volunteered to manage the shelter up until now, is also losing two of its own board members, and will no longer be able to manage the shelter on its own.

Lack of interest

The Nunavut Department of Health and Social Services, the Nunavut Housing Corporation, the regional health board, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment and Town Social Services are very supportive and have offered their support to keep the shelter going.

But unless a new Oqota Emergency Shelter Society is formed quickly or more people from the community of Iqaluit step forward to volunteer to sit on the board of directors of the Illitiit Society, the new Oqota Emergency Shelter will also have to close, due to a lack public interest.

If the community of Iqaluit is to maintain an emergency shelter over the longer term, core funding must be provided by the territorial government for this purpose. Inconsistent short-term funding from different sources is a nightmare to manage, particularly for a non-profit organization that already has trouble finding volunteers.

The supervision and delivery of services at the Oqota shelter currently costs approximately $17,500 per month. The Baffin Regional Health and Social Services Board contributes $5,500 per month, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment contributes $4,500 per month, but we are left $7,500 short of actual operating costs.

Although the Illitiit Society is prepared to try to raise $3,500 per month on its own through local fundraising efforts, we will still fall short.

In the longer tern, Nunavut will need a better way to recruit members to volunteer community organizations. Perhaps the town’s Community Wellness program can continue to offer and improve their support.

It is a common tendency to blame the homeless people themselves for their destitute state. I recommend that anybody who believes that become a member of the Oqota Emergency Shelter Society, where they can learn about the complexity of the issue of homelessness.

Homeless could protest

The homeless themselves could be more active and visible by volunteering their own time to the community and local businesses. They could organize themselves and stage public protests to alert others to the unequal distribution of wealth in this community and the social problems that everyone wants to ignore.

But most homeless feel ashamed, humiliated and disempowered and have barely enough strength to worry about where their next meal or cigarette is coming from.

Many residents of Iqaluit are sympathetic to the issue of homelessness. Everybody knows of the high cost of rent and the shortage of housing. Few, however, understand the true extent, nature and underlying causes of homelessness, and this I think prevents ordinary residents from taking steps to solve the problem.

As a concerned resident of Iqaluit, there are things you can do as an individual to take action against homelessness. Here are a few suggestions:

Become informed on the extent, nature and underlying factors of homelessness in Iqaluit by becoming a member of the Oqota Emergency Shelter Society;
Write to your MLA and ask for a comprehensive government support program to prevent and deal with homelessness;
Volunteer your time to work a shift as security staff at the homeless shelter, or “adopt” a homeless person and help him find a way to overcome the personal and lifestyle barriers that are preventing him from improving his station in life;
Your decision to become involved with the complex issue of homelessness in Iqaluit cand and will help the first Nunavut government make good on its promise to be a government that puts people first.

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