Initiative seeks to define northern homelessness

“The North can show the rest of the country how to do it”

By JANE GEORGE

You see homelessness, you know the homeless are there, and you may even know why some people become homeless.

But without research to pin down the numbers and reasons, it’s hard to go to the federal government and ask for money for specific programs.

Gerry Cheezie, manager of the Dene Housing Corporation in Yellowknife, said he knows homeless numbers have risen.

Only a dozen people were homeless a decade ago, but now 50 men and 30 women fill Yellowknife shelters to capacity every night.

And Cheezie knows homelessness is up because Yellowknife’s job and construction boom draws many to the city, but at the same time, they can’t qualify for the jobs or afford high-end housing.

“We know it. It drives me insane. How many more stats do we need?” Cheezie said.

Last week Cheezie was in Iqaluit for a two-day meeting of the National Homeless Initiative to see what aspects of homelessness need to be studied and how this should be done.

Collette Bradshaw, the federal minister of labour whose responsibilities include the homeless, acknowledges that the North has unique issues. In a message to meeting participants in Iqaluit, Bradshaw said, “I know that Northern communities have specific needs, different realities and research gaps that set them apart from the rest of Canada. The National Homeless Initiative recognizes that much has to be learned about homelessness in the northern context, including its scope, manifestations, and the means to effectively address it.”

At stake is $150,000 that’s been earmarked by Ottawa for research into northern homelessness.

One possible focus for future research may be to develop a more northern definition of homelessness in addition to the two ways in which the problem is now measured in Canada: “absolute” homelessness, which means a person has no place to sleep, and “relative” homelessness, which means a person has a place to sleep, but no home.

“Relative homelessness, it doesn’t sound strong enough for the North. They’re coming from the South with two definitions, but I think they have to come up with something that works for the North. Because nobody here can be absolutely homeless here – they would die, so we need to find something that fits us,” said Kowesa Ettituq, a board member of the Illitiit Society, which operates Iqaluit’s homeless shelter.

Karen Hoeft, representing Yellowknife’s Salvation Army and its homeless coalition, suggests it’s time to get rid of colonial-style approaches in research and look at traditional values in a new way.

“I would like to explore a whole new model of governing. Homeless people have a tendency to fall between everyone’s jurisdiction which is why they are homeless,” Hoeft said.

Yellowknife is dealing with homelessness through a coalition, formed four years ago. The coalition brings together all the groups and agencies which deal with homeless people.

Included are counselling and residential services that serve homeless families, youth, women and men. The situation in the city is complicated, said Hoeft, because of the number of groups and languages that need services.

That’s challenged the coalition as it works to build a consensus on what to fund and how.

“It’s a process, and a long process, to listen to each other and know each other, learning that you’re working with the same group of people and that if you work together you can achieve great things,” Hoeft said. “For me, it’s never only about money, it’s how we spend money.”

Hoeft said the North has great strengths and deep resources because northern residents still believe in community.

“The North can show the rest of the country how to do it – it has not been isolated with individualism,” Hoeft said.

Based on the reflections of last week’s meeting, a committee of six, with representatives from Nunavut, the NWT and Yukon will meet in the near future to see how to focus their research efforts.

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