Oqota shelter needs help to bring Xmas to the homeless

Staff at Iqaluit’s Oqota Emergency Shelter want to make this a memorable Christmas for the homeless — but they need help from the community.


IQALUIT — A Christmas tree, decorations, plentiful food and a few gifts will go a long way towards bringing holiday cheer to Iqaluit’s most needy residents — the homeless.

On Christmas Day, Iqaluit’s Oqota Emergency Shelter will stay open all day long. Its coordinator, Gordon Barnes, wants to make the day a memorable one for those who call the shelter their only home.

“There are people here who haven’t had a Christmas present in years,” Barnes said. “I’m sure we’ll see a few tears.”

Barnes is hoping that Iqalungmiut and local businesses will respond to the shelter’s appeal for donations and contributions, so that the homeless can share in the holiday festivities, too.

The local RCMP detachment has already offered to prepare gift packages filled with practical presents.

But the shelter’s list for Santa also includes a tree, decorations, Christmas stockings, nuts, candy, wrapping paper, fruit, coffee, potatoes, and turkey.

And for the homeless, warm winter clothing is always in short supply.

“The people here appreciate things more than others because they can’t get a lot,” Barnes said.

Public invited next Wednesday

They’re also eager to share what they do have — and on the afternoon of December 22, they’re welcoming Iqaluit residents to visit the shelter’s home at building 154 for an open house that marks its first anniversary.

Over the past year, Barnes estimates some 50 men and 11 women have stayed in the 14-bed shelter for shorter or longer periods. Those looking for a bed arrive every evening by 6 pm at the shelter, although every day staff have to turn away three or four people who need a place to sleep.

“If we had 20 beds, we’d still have the same problem,” Barnes said.

Every morning, the shelter closes for the day. If clients miss the shelter’s re-opening in the evening, or become intoxicated during the day, they can end up spending the next night in a furnace room, a corridor, out of doors, or even in jail.

Those who show up know they can’t be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the shelter, which is intended to be a “sober, safe place” with a zero tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol and violence. When clients are in the shelter, they usually pursue quiet activities: television, sewing, games, talking or preparing snacks.

“People here are like a family,” Barnes said. “They say they’ve never felt safer.”

Yet those who live in Nunavut’s smaller, tight-knit communities still find the phenomenon of homelessness in Iqaluit pu ling.

And for years, local families in Iqaluit always dealt with the problem on their own, offering a warm place to sleep to any who needed it. But now the demand for shelter now far exceeds the supply, and some can no longer count on unconditional support from the surrounding community.

Difficult clients

Only two-thirds of the shelter’s clients come from Iqaluit. Many have deep psychological problems. Some have been released from federal and provincial jails, and because of the serious nature of their offenses aren’t welcome back in their home communities.

“We’re getting the most difficult clients in the Baffin,” Barnes said.

He and the other four full-time and part-time staff try their best to help clients, keeping in touch with the hospital if they need to take regular medication, linking them up with work or volunteer activities, if possible, and trying to find them permanent homes. Several of the shelter’s former residents have found lodging and jobs.

Barnes is quick to point out that those who end up at the shelter’s doors are just the “visible homeless” in Iqaluit. Many more, who have no permanent address, stay with friends, wandering from one overcrowded apartment to another. Homeless families or single parents with children can’t stay at the shelter either.

A job, good friends or close relatives in Iqaluit may be the only reason that more people don’t end up at the shelter.

“This is the price we’re paying for progress,” Barnes said. “And what we see here [at the shelter] is just part of the problem. We see people who have no resources at all and have come to the end of their rope.”

Uncertain support

Given the magnitude of the problem, it might seem to be a given that the shelter would receive solid support, but Barnes said that’s not the case.

The shelter costs $240,000 a year to operate. Its board patches together funding from social services, the housing authority and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. Occasionally, the shelter has trouble paying its employees’ salaries.

“We’re always on the edge,” said board member Lee Smith. “And as a board, we’re personally liable for our staff’s salaries if we haven’t given them notice. It’s not proper management. We need multi-year funding.”

Some of these difficulties are due to the disarray that the Iqaluit’s former shelter fell into before it closed and the new Oqota management took over.

“And no one has wanted to say, ‘the homeless, it’s our problem,’ ” Smith said.

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik recently named health and social services minister Ed Picco as the minister responsible for the homeless.

Following this appointment, Picco went to Ottawa, where he met with Claudette Bradshaw, the federal minister responsible for homelessness.

In early November Bradshaw presented a strategy memorandum to cabinet on fighting homelessness in Canada.

This plan would see the federal government spend $200 million ever year over the next six years, for a total of $1.2 billion by 2005.

A new national homeless prevention strategy would tackle the causes of homelessness, which include lack of affordable housing, mental illness, alcoholism and unemployment.

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