Matthew Cotchilly stokes the fire in the wood stove in his living room, keeping the fire burning hot. The heat keeps the house comfortable while snow blows outside against the windows.

For Cotchilly, this is a luxury.

The stove was just installed two weeks ago. For 10 years before that, he didn't have anything to keep the house warm. He's one of the dozens of people in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., living in a house that many would find unfit to live in.

Cotchilly lives in the house his dad, John Cotchilly, built near the banks of the Mackenzie River in 1987.

John and Matthew Cotchilly

John and Matthew Cotchilly at the home John built in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

It's been disconnected from the power grid, with the bathroom being the only room with running water. Heavy curtains cover the ill-fitting glass windows and doorways, keeping the cold out.

A diesel generator powers a single light bulb and a small TV and DVD player, where Cotchilly watches Bruce Lee films.

"This is the only place I could live in; I've been living here all my life. I want to stay here and try to fix it up," he said. "It's a good house, it's a big house."

Cotchilly doesn't describe himself as homeless. In fact, he invites other young people to stay with him when they have no place to go. There are about five or six who regularly come to visit.  

"They have a place to sleep, it's warm. They spend nights with me when they have no place to go. It's like a daycare," he said.

"We can sit around, talk, play games, watch TV and movies," he said. "It's mostly my nephews, younger cousins."

Repairing these types of homes is one of the goals for the community's housing society, which is hosting a three-day forum this week to discuss the housing crisis and develop a local housing strategy.

Many couch surf and make do

The society is funded by the Yamoga Land Corporation, which manages the community's land claim funds and paid for Cotchilly's new stove.

Matthew Cotchilly

Matthew Cotchilly holds a light bulb in his Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., 'home.' Cotchilly hopes to get funding to bring the structure up to acceptable living standards. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Roughly 50 single men and women are in need of a home, according to Arthur Tobak, who works with the housing society. That's about 10 per cent of the community's total population.

Despite describing homelessness as a crisis, it's not always obvious, he said. That's because some couch surf, stay with parents, or make do — like Cotchilly does — even though they are homeless by most definitions.

"There are even couples sleeping in separate places, simply because they have nowhere to go," Tobak said. "There's only so much housing [stock] that we have in social housing."

Many families who do have a home often find themselves overcrowded. It's not uncommon for two or three generations of the same family to live together. That leads to stress and tensions, which can boil over, especially when alcohol is involved, Tobak said.

"We need to address the social side of things, and one way to do that is to make sure we have enough housing or places to stay," he said, "To really give them a chance to look at their lives, and change it if they have to."

For Cotchilly, his dream is to turn his home into some place nice. A place that he could even rent out while he goes out on the land to trap.

But first, he needs help.

"I want to build new ceilings, new walls. I wouldn't mind some new flooring, I wouldn't mind my bathroom fixed up and get back on the power," he said.

"I just need some materials. I'd like to fix up my home and make it liveable."


Alex Brockman is in Fort Good Hope this week during the housing forum sharing stories about the housing crisis and what people are doing about it.

Do you have a story about housing in your community? Email him at alex.brockman@cbc.ca

Clarifications

  • A previous version of the story quoted Arthur Tobak saying 50 people younger than 25 are homeless in Fort Good Hope. In fact, about 50 single men and women are in need of a home.
    Dec 06, 2017 8:24 PM CT