North·In Depth

Following death of homeless woman, advocates call for change in Yellowknife

Advocates say better housing support, more options for drug and alcohol users, and roving health care professionals all need to be considered.

Sophie Thrasher, 54, died last week; some say the city needs roving health care professionals

Advocates say better housing support, more options for drug and alcohol users, and roving health care professionals all need to be considered. (Ollie Williams/CBC)

The death of a 54-year-old homeless woman in Yellowknife has led some people to wonder what can be done to better the lives of people in the city's street community.

Sophie Thrasher was a fixture in town, known for her puppy-themed hat and readiness to help others on the streets. In the media, she often advocated for her rights and the challenges she faced as someone without a home. 

Her death has left some people asking: what needs to change for the city's homeless population?

Sophie Thrasher, left, with a companion. Thrasher's death has hit hard for many of the people who knew her. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Not enough outreach

"A tragedy like this means there's not enough services directly on the front lines," said city Coun. Linda Bussey.

Last year, the city of Yellowknife started a street outreach program that gives people rides to the local homeless shelter or sobering centre. Bussey said Thrasher's death indicates that program might not be enough.

"We need to look at what happened and not be afraid to make changes."

Bree Denning, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, says her clients are often intimidated by places that are meant to help, like emergency rooms or offices providing government services.

Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, says her clients need more outreach workers. (Katie Toth/CBC)

That's why Denning is calling for outreach workers and mental health care professionals to go to the places where homeless women hang out, instead of expecting them to keep appointments or go to government offices.

The society runs the Centre for Northern Families, which has a weekly health clinic on Tuesdays. Denning says — with more money — it could expand to five or seven days a week. 

"But that [funding] assistance has not been forthcoming," she said. 

Tangle of substance abuse

Friends recall how Thrasher always looked out for others when they were at a low point. Some say she often saved the final drops of a bottle of booze for someone who needed it most.

Many homeless people in the Northwest Territories deal with substance abuse, and while Yellowknife has a sobering shelter and group counselling services, people who need more extensive treatment are sent south

In 2015, a point-in-time count over the span of two days found that 139 people identified as homeless in Yellowknife. Advocates agree outsourcing treatment can prevent people from taking the leap and make it harder to stay sober.

Lyda Fuller, the executive director for the YWCA in Yellowknife, is hopeful a new Indigenous wellness program will help some homeless people get the treatment they need to stop abusing substances. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

"They come back better, but that doesn't last," said Lyda Fuller, executive director of the Northwest Territories YWCA, which helps homeless women and families.

She adds that the territory "hasn't really come to grips" with the needs people have for follow-up treatment and after care when they go home.

Fuller is hopeful that a new Indigenous wellness program will help.

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation recently created an urban on-the-land healing camp that emphasizes traditional knowledge, spiritual practices and country food. 

Would managed alcohol program help?

Dean Ruben, Thrasher's cousin, says there's no question people who are using drugs and alcohol in the territory need more resources. 

He wants Yellowknife to look to Vancouver, where there are places for people to use drugs or drink alcohol under the eye of medical professionals.

"I think that would make the city more safe," Ruben said.

Two years ago, the city, territorial government and various organizations teamed up to create a 10-year plan to fight homelessness. Part of the plan included a managed alcohol program, like what Ruben describes.

The territorial government has yet to find the money to fund it.

"The Department has researched [managed alcohol programs] across Canada and is developing a model for how this type of program could be implemented in Yellowknife," said Damien Healy, a spokesperson from the health department. "A provider, location and associated human and financial resources would be required.

A place to live

In 2016, Yellowknife and the city's women's society started getting people off the streets with a "housing first" model, which gets homeless people their own homes before helping them deal with other issues like finding a good job or dealing with addictions or health problems.

When that program began, the women's society committed to housing 20 people within two years.

And in 2017, the YWCA received $86,000 from the federal government to help 12 homeless families get apartments.

Fuller, who works mainly with families who don't have homes, says "it's a huge barrier" for people to find "places to live that are safe and affordable."

She says when people move from the streets into a house, they need help with the change of pace. She wants to see more workers available to help with that process.

Coun. Bussey is hoping to see more territorial and federal funding to tackle the problems.

"There's a lot of people who need support, but we've done good work," she said, adding that she met with territorial government representatives last week. "I think we are going to see this grow and become a priority."