Yukon's NDP says the minister of health and social services doesn't understand what "Housing First" means.
The issue came up recently when NDP MLA Kate White asked Minister Pauline Frost if the 22 transitional housing units at the new Salvation Army Centre of Hope in Whitehorse would use a Housing First model.
The term refers to an approach to homelessness that provides housing to people, without pre-conditions such as psychiatric treatment or sobriety.
Frost replied that the new Salvation Army units would constitute a Housing First initiative, and later repeated that to reporters. She also went on to elaborate, though, that alcohol or drugs would not be allowed in the units.
Then, this week Frost said the transition units will not in fact be Housing First units, although she added that they will use "a component of the Housing First model."
White says that Frost's understanding of Housing First is inconsistent with what it actually means, adding that Frost cannot simply arbitrarily change the meaning of the term.
"When the minister reinvents what 'Housing First' is, and she talks about a continuum of housing first, anywhere, across the country, internationally, the experts will disagree with that statement," White said.
White says the meaning of Housing First is very clear — it's a harm reduction approach where people are allowed to drink or use drugs while being housed, and that access to permanent housing is not contingent upon sobriety.
White says in addition, the Salvation Army's emergency shelter does not constitute Housing First either, because it is not permanent housing.
Frost has told reporters that Housing First can mean a variety of approaches.
"There are many facets of Housing First in the housing continuum model," she said. "It's the interpretation — so everyone interprets it differently.
"What I'm trying to do, and what this Liberal government is trying to do, is look at best practices everywhere."
Experts agree with White, explaining that Housing First is not a concept, but rather a delivery model with very precise parameters.
"If you're in Housing First, there are not strict rules about drugs or alcohol, so you would be allowed to have alcohol in your unit," said Nick Falvo, director of research and data with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
"The idea is that you get the housing and there are very few strings attached — you do not have to prove that you are clean and sober."
Patrica Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties, Four Directions in Whitehorse, says it's about harm reduction.
"It's not up for debate, in terms of how we define Housing First,'" she said.
Bacon says requiring people to be clean and sober before housing them means the most vulnerable people suffer.
"When we say, 'oh, you will be housed if you meet these conditions of sobriety — that's not Housing First at all. Asking people to meet conditions of sobriety that they probably cannot meet, it's cruel."
Bacon also disputes Frost's statement that "everyone interprets it differently."
"It's really important to be clear that Housing First isn't one of those things that's subject to interpretation or debate, Housing First has a definition, and it's a well-adopted definition."
Meanwhile, Minister Frost says a Housing First proposal is forthcoming in the next few weeks, "that really speaks to the question of Housing First — we have a project coming forward."