North·In Depth

N.W.T. gov't underestimates homelessness in smaller communities, says Fort Providence group

A not-for-profit group fighting homelessness in Fort Providence, N.W.T., says it can’t get the territorial funding it needs — and it's blaming the N.W.T. government's underestimation of the problem in smaller communities.

Group trying to build transitional housing complex turned down for territorial funding

A not-for-profit group in Fort Providence, N.W.T., says the territorial government is ignoring a homelessness crisis in the community.  

Five community members formed the Community Advancement Partnership Society (CAPS) in November. It's trying to raise money to build a transitional housing complex for people who need it.

However, the group says it can't get the territorial funding it needs — and it's blaming an underestimation of homelessness in smaller communities by the N.W.T. government.

'We feel there is an epidemic'

"Homelessness is sort of a catch-all phrase that we seem to use here, but it's a definition that doesn't fit well in a small community like this," said Pat Mazerolle, one of the group's founding members.

Pat Mazerolle, one of the founding members of the Community Advancement Partnership Society in Fort Providence, N.W.T., says the housing units they plan to build will be 'pretty frugal but it'll be safe and it'll be their own spot.' (submitted)

"Here in a close-knit community, with a lot of family members, people seem to find ways to house themselves, but that creates overcrowded units, people couch surfing, or going from house to house for three or four days at a time until that family says enough is enough."

Mazerolle said some people do manage to find their own space, but it's often not suitable for living — especially during the winter.

"You have people that are living in shacks with no running water or no electricity, people's wood sheds, smoke shacks, any place that they can get."

According to Mazerolle, the N.W.T. government is overlooking situations such as these.

"We were challenged on the level of need, we'll call it a discrepancy on actual numbers of homelessness," he said.

"The government or civil servants seem to feel that there is not a homeless need in Fort Providence, and we feel there is an epidemic."

According to Mazerolle, that's making it difficult to access the kind of government support the CAPS housing project needs to become a reality.

CAPS applied for funding through Northern Pathways to Housing, a program offered by the N.W.T. Housing Corporation that funds non-governmental organizations to operate emergency and transitional housing in small communities.

"We were told there just isn't any money left," said Mazerolle.

He also met with the N.W.T.'s minister responsible for the housing corporation and for addressing homelessness, Caroline Cochrane, in hopes of getting the project piloted by the N.W.T. government but was not successful.

20 km out of town, with no running water

Fort Providence resident Elsie Lacorne, 61, said the community needs a project like the one CAPS is planning.

Four years ago, she left her public housing unit after receiving a bill for rent arrears she says she was unable to pay.

Lacorne had to leave her public housing unit four years ago. She's been living in a cabin, which has no electricity or running water, 20 kilometres from town ever since. (submitted by Elsie Lacorne)

"At first we owed only $800, and we couldn't pay that bill, so I told my husband we might as well move out," said Lacorne.

"We packed up everything we had and moved our stuff to Winter Crossing where we had a small cabin."

The cabin, which has no electricity or running water, is 20 kilometres from town. Lacorne and her husband don't have a vehicle, and have to rely on family members for trips to get drinking water or visit the health centre.

Recently Lacorne took her 65-year-old brother in as well, after he was kicked out of his unit at the community's elders home because young people were using it to party.

"I told my sister, 'I'll take him in, but we don't have any room for him,' but he has a tent so we pitch it outside my house."

Lacorne said her family's situation is not uncommon.

"A lot of people are wandering the street because housing kicked them out or they got evicted, and they just sleep wherever.

"They carry their clothes around wherever they sleep, and they're breaking into homes because they have no food to eat and they don't even have a place to cook."

According to Lacorne, "some people are getting tired of family coming in and out of their house," but she said "they feel like they can't turn them out."

Addressing homelessness through public housing

"I wouldn't agree that we don't understand the problem [of homelessness]," said Revi Lau-a, a manager with the N.W.T. Housing Corporation.

"I would agree that we certainly have challenges understanding the extent of the problem."

According to Lau-a, the CAPS project didn't get the funding it wanted because it simply isn't available.

Lau-a says the GNWT does understand homelessness in small communities, and that's not why Mazerolle's project didn't get the funding it applied for. (submitted by Revi Lau-a)

"Unfortunately for the group in Fort Providence, their communications with us only began last fall, and at that time we had already committed [the Northern Pathways money] to the three projects, and that's all that we had in our budget.

"It had nothing to do with the merits of the project, or wanting it to go to another community."

Lau-a said the government is doing what it can to address homelessness in small N.W.T. communities.

"I would say that the biggest intervention that the N.W.T. Housing Corporation has is our approximately 2,400 public housing units, where the rents are very stable and affordable."

According to Lau-a there are currently 850 households on the waiting list for public housing in the Northwest Territories, and 14 of those are in Fort Providence.

He also said the GNWT does not keep homelessness statistics for any small communities in the territory, but argued that the waiting list for public housing is a good indicator. 

"The resources to conduct a homelessness count in communities are just not available, it's a very significant undertaking."

Group starts its own wait-list 

Mazerolle said he is not giving up. He's determined to demonstrate that there is a need for additional housing in the community.

"We are now starting a wait-list of people who want to be housed by us. We have nine registered, and 16 that have been referred."

Mazerolle plans to present the wait-list, along with a report he's writing outlining housing problems in Fort Providence, to minister Cochrane in the coming weeks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Zelniker is a current affairs radio associate producer with CBC North in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @rzelniker or email rachel.zelniker@cbc.ca.

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