Evicted and homeless: housing crisis in Behchoko, N.W.T. has no easy solutions
Housing Corp. minister says federal funding not meeting Northern housing needs
Seeking shelter in abandoned homes and desperately moving from place to place, the plight of many residents in Behchoko, N.W.T., exemplify the community's housing crisis.
The number of homeless in the community of 2,100, an hour drive north of Yellowknife, ranges anywhere between 30 and 120 at any given moment. Individuals, couples and families of up to seven are homeless.
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Many homeless have been evicted from public housing. Joe Pintarics, president of the Tlicho Friendship Centre, says part of the problem is that the N.W.T. Housing Corporation is too punitive when implementing its policies and a more effective response would be taking the time to understand the tenants' situation.
"Let's give them the skills to bring them back up to where they are recovering their debts," he says.
Pintarics says it is tougher for evicted tenants that end up homeless to get a job, and therefore they have no way of paying back their arrears.
Last year, he proposed an idea to help evicted tenants repay their debt.
"I suggested to Housing, let's look at sweat equity. Most of the guys that are evicted have skills. They can paint. They can drywall. They can fix places up," he says.
"Let's put them to work. Let's use their labour to pay off their debt. Let's get them back into a housing unit as quickly as possible."
Pintarics says he was told the idea made it all the way to the territorial cabinet but he says that is where it ended.
Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty agrees the N.W.T. Housing Corporation needs to take a more hands-on approach when dealing with tenants. He also would like a focus on preventative measures so that residents do not get evicted in the first place.
He said the Housing Corporation, the Department of Health and Social Services and MLAs need to work together to help deal with the situation, but tenants need to step up as well.
"I highly encourage those individuals, community members that are either evicted or about to be evicted, [to] develop payment arrangements… At least that will get them started."
'We're really bursting here'
Behchoko Chief Clifford Daniels says he has noticed a growing trend in homelessness, housing shortages, alcoholism, a lack of employment and a range of other social issues that exacerbate the situation.
He says his community could use at least 100 additional housing units to ease the strain.
"We don't have adequate housing for the community and it's a struggle," he says.
"We're really bursting here."
Daniels says he is aware residents want the Tlicho Government to step in and deal with the crisis. However he says the government does not have a housing program nor the funding to deal with it.
He says the territorial government is responsible for housing in the Tlicho region.
"They should be providing funds for shelters, [and] homeless programs," he says.
'It's critical that people learn to take some responsibility'
Caroline Cochrane, Minister Responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation and for Addressing Homelessness, says that if it were up to her, everyone in the community would get a home.
But that is not a reality, she says.
The NWT Housing Corporation has an $80 million budget for all 33 communities in the territory. That works out to less than $2.5 million per community. Building a single unit in a remote community can cost up to $1 million, she says.
She says her department, along with the Yukon and Nunavut territorial governments, have been lobbying the federal government to recognize the North's needs when it comes to housing funding.
Cochrane says there is a serious housing shortage and homelessness problem not only in Behchoko but throughout the territory.
She says the housing corporation is trying to be fair.
"If one neighbour is paying rent then I have to ensure that the other neighbour is paying rent," she says.
"Because at the same time we have a huge waiting list of people that are homeless trying to get in. It's critical actually that people learn to take some responsibility and to pay their bills. So we're trying to instill in people that they need to take care of their shelter needs before they take care of anything else such as the new vehicle."
She says she has given direction to the department that if people haven't paid their rent for a two-month period, "We are going in there, aggressively working with the families to actually try to see if we can make a repayment plan."
These negotiated repayment plans can require people to pay as little as 10 per cent of the family's income, she says.
Cochrane says she recognizes that some homeless evicted families are being prevented from staying with relatives or friends living in public housing. But she says her hands are tied.
"The reality is there is a national building code now that says there's only allowed a certain amount of children per bedroom.
"That is not an N.W.T. legislated act. That is national and so we have to abide by that."
Cochrane says her department is in the process of rolling out a survey to anyone affiliated with public housing and tenants in the territory. It will ask what works and what doesn't and how things should change. Afterward, the housing corporation will develop community-tailored plans that can address community-specific concerns such as homelessness.
"We are going to be looking at every single policy, every single program. And we will be making mass changes based on how to best support people," she says.
4-unit shelter coming
In the next year, Fort Simpson, Aklavik and Behchoko will each be getting a four-unit Housing First-model shelter.
In Behchoko, the Friendship Centre will run the facility which will house four residents permanently and provide support services.
Pintarics admits that "it is a drop in the bucket," but says the shelter is a step in the right direction.
"We are very excited," he says.