Picco: federal homelessness plan of little use to Nunavut

Ottawa, however, says its $753 million homelessness initiative is flexible enough to benefit everyone.



IQALUIT — Nunavut leaders say a $753 million federal homelessness initiative will mostly benefit people living in urban regions of the southern provinces, but federal officials say Nunavummiut aren’t being totally left out.

“Fifteen people in a house is homelessness,” said Ed Picco, Nunavut’s minister responsible for homelessness said the day after federal Labour Minister Claudette Bradshaw, the minister responsible for homelessness, unveiled a new federal spending program at a press conference in Toronto.

“Eighty-five percent of our residents are aboriginal and our jurisdiction does not qualify for urban, reserve, and other southern-focused initiatives, ” Picco said.

Last week, Bradshaw announced that Ottawa plans to spend $750 million over the next three years on a variety of programs aimed at reducing the number of people living on the street or in bad housing.

Bradshaw completed a consultation tour of Canadian communities this year, and even stopped in Iqaluit this summer.

On the same day as Bradshaw’s announcement, the Nunavut government issued a press release criticizing the initiative for leaving out rural and northern communities, and said the federal government had created a crisis situation in Nunavut when it withdrew funding for new social housing in 1993.

“It didn’t meet our core need, which has to do with new social housing,” Picco said.

He said he and others in the territorial government were hopeful that funding for new construction would be announced in the federal government’s 2000 budget.

“We will continue to press the federal government to accept its responsibility for aboriginal social housing in northern and rural Canada,” Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik said in the press release.

But this week federal officials were saying that the new spending does not leave out northerners.

“I was worried about this with the announcement coming in Toronto that people would think it was only for urban homelessness,” said Emily Thomson, Bradshaw’s press secretary. She said that the program had been misrepresented in the media and had in fact been designed to take into account the needs of every province and territory.

The federal government will spend $305 million over the next three years with a new program called Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative, she said.

The money will go to fund anti-homelessness programs developed by local municipalities, community groups and the private sector, Thomson said .

As for the rest of the funding, $268 million will go to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program.

The remainder of the money will go to existing federal programs such as the youth employment strategy, the urban aboriginal strategy, and another CMHC program for improving family violence shelters.

“The people in the best position to address the situation are at the community level,” said Germain Laporte, executive director of the National Secretariat on Homelessness. Created by the federal government, the secretariat organized Bradshaw’s tour and compiled the information submitted to the minister from the communities.

Laporte said Bradshaw heard on her tour that people wanted programs to be designed and implemented at the community level and that they wanted the federal government to act as a partner instead of decreeing what programs would be run and where.

Communities will be invited to submit proposals to the federal government and the ideas will evaluated and funded on a case by case basis, he said.

However, the government will still have to negotiate with the provinces about how much funding will go where and to whom, said Thomson.

“We will first focus on locating where the homelessness situation is most acute, “said Laporte. Unfortunately the only data on homelessness his group has to work with has been compiled by a variety of different groups using different methodologies.

The secretariat will use homelessness studies done by municipalities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa-Carleton, and will even use Statistics Canada studies on vacancy rates.

“Homelessness has a different significance depending on where you are in Canada. It has a different significance where people are living on the street and could freeze to death than from where there are 15 people living in a house in Nunavut. It has a different significance in Toronto or Montreal where you might have two working parents with kids who are living in a shelter because there is no affordable housing,” said Laporte.

The federal government seems to be dividing the issue according to United Nations guidelines, which say there are essentially two types of homelessness: “relative” and “absolute” homelessness, said Nick Xenos, a policy analyst for the Nunavut government.

He said the federal initiative seemed to be focusing on absolute homelessness.

“‘Absolute’ refers to people on the streets. ‘Relative’ is the main issue here. We are trying to argue that relative homelessness is just as bad,” said Xenos.

According to the Nunavut government’s press release there are currently 1,231 households in Nunavut on the waiting list for social housing. According to the territorial government 22 per cent of households in Nunavut have six or more people, compared to 3.3 per cent overall in Canada.

Although Picco said there may be an opportunity for Iqaluit to cash in on some of the programs in the announcement, he said there is nothing in the government’s announcement that would address Nunavut’s most dire need: social housing.

And while Xenos said the federal government seems open to discussing the topic of overcrowding, it hasn’t made any commitments to address it.

Picco said there may be an opportunity for Nunavut to get funding to convert surplus federal government buildings into housing, and possibly to improve the women’s shelter in Iqaluit.

He said he had been in discussion with the Canadian Coast guard about using part of their building as a drop in and counseling centre. But he stressed that what Nunavut needs most is social housing.

“Our homelessness is more hidden,” said Picco.

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