Behchoko elders plead for help with frozen pipes and aging homes

Elders in Behchokǫ̀ say they are living in homes without running water during a pandemic, when public health officials are urging residents to sanitize their hands frequently. Help with repairs is slow.

Homes left without running water for more than a month

Behchokǫ̀ Elder Celine Whane said she is frustrated with frozen pipes and no running water, but help for elders who need assistance with repairs is slow. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Celine Whane has had no running water in her home for more than a month — the pipes are frozen, but when she phones for help a service man tells her she is 17th on the list for a repair and needs industrial heaters to thaw it out. 

"They talk about COVID-19 ... wash your hands," Whane said. "How in the world am I going to wash my hands with no water?"

Whane lives with her son and her grandson. She's lived in her house since 1988 and has tried to stay on top of house repairs over the years but worries her pipes are damaged. 

"It's terrible to live [for] ever without running water, to tell you the truth," she said.

Whane can't flush her toilet and laundry is a tedious task.

"I cannot flush the bathroom. I've been using honey buckets," she said. "If I want to wash clothes, I have to go by hand. It's not good."

To shower, she has to go to a neighbours house and pay for those utilities, which she says costs her $50 per person.

"I have a grandson that I dearly love and he needs to take a shower ... and I need to do the same thing," she said. "But we can't do that. I cannot go and spend $150 every second day. I can't afford it."

Part of her house is built on muskeg which makes the house shift. Over the years, she's had the housing authority make minor repairs like fixing doorknobs and windows and cleaning out her water tank.

Administrative burden keeps Elders from accessing help

Whane, 74, used to crawl under her house to seal cracked pipes with glue but her age and limited mobility from getting polio as a child have made these tasks more difficult. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

The last time she applied for housing repair funding, the application never went through because she couldn't provide the necessary paperwork.

To access the fund, a person must prove their household income is below the core need income threshold, a maximum income level set by the territory's housing corporation.

"When you ask to get your house fixed ... they ask for your income tax. And if I don't get the income tax, I can't get nothing done. Why would an elderly pension lady need to get the income tax receipt?"

"If I make too much, I can't get help. If I don't make enough, I can't get help. It's like I'm on a swing. You just go back and forth, back and forth," she said.

Whane, now 74, used to crawl under her house to seal cracked pipes with glue, but her age and limited mobility from getting polio as a child have made these tasks more difficult. 

"I'm tired of doing it. I cry a lot [inside]. Where is everybody? Where is everybody when you need help?" she said. "And who do I go to and who do I talk to? If something is not right, when an elderly person asks for help, they should help."

Whane knows she's not alone with her housing troubles. Just a few streets down from her, another family is having similar problems.

Housing problems compromise well being, mental health

Jane Weyallon has been advocating for her auntie for years and says nobody should have to live in housing with inadequate plumbing. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Rosa Mantla has also had no running water for months because all her pipes froze this winter. But that's not her only concern.

Her husband has arthritis and early onset dementia, and having to care for him without water has been a struggle. She's also worried about the risk of a house fire.

"At night when we start the fire, the old man puts lots of wood in the stove.... That scares me," she said. 

The house was built decades ago through a housing assistance program. It is in disrepair and has mould. 

Jane Weyallon is Mantla's niece and she's been advocating for her for years. 

Weyallon is concerned for their well being and mental health. She says the house should be condemned and that no one should be living in those conditions.

Mantla lives with her husband who has early onset dementia. Caring for him without running water has been a struggle. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Weyallon says her aunt feels helpless and hopeless, but she is sure she is not alone in her experience. 

"There's probably a lot of other people in the same situation, where they have to fill up the application yearly and still get denied," she says.

Mantla applied for housing and funds for repairs several times over the years but those applications were denied over property taxes owed on the lease. 

Mantla has since paid off the debt but she gave up and hasn't bothered to try again.

Programs for seniors are available through the territory's housing corporation, including a retrofit program geared toward seniors who wish to age in place.

It provides seniors with a forgivable loan for up to one year so that seniors can stay in their homes longer. It's a maximum of $10,000 and can be combined with other programs. 

The housing corporation encourages people to apply yearly to keep their homes in good shape.

Last year, the territory's housing corporation received 73 requests for repairs from seniors in Behchokǫ̀. Fifty-nine of these requests were approved, eight were withdrawn, and six were declined.

N.W.T. Housing Minister Paulie Chinna says the department is doing what it can so seniors can stay in their private homes as long as possible.

Chinna said the government has removed some criteria, like housing insurance and land tenure, which were potential barriers to accessing programs.

Weyallon says that's not enough. She wants to see a review of housing policies.

"It would be nice if the government can really reinforce their workers to settle a lot of outstanding land ... or property issues and housing issues," she said, "so that they will be eligible for programs ... being offered by the government."