Those temporarily housed during COVID-19 pandemic in N.W.T. still need homes

The N.W.T. housing minister says there is no concrete plan in place for those temporarily housed during the COVID-19 crisis.

'Right now we don't have a solution, to be honest,' says housing minister

N.W.T. Housing Minister Paulie Chinna says the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the needs of the territory's homeless. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The housing minister for the Northwest Territories says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light how many people are still falling through the cracks in the territory's housing system — in particular, those without homes at all. 

The arrival of COVID-19 physical distancing and self-isolation protocols in the territory brought challenges for Yellowknife's population of people who regularly live without shelter. Among solutions was the temporary conversion of the Yellowknife day and sobering shelter into a quarantine centre, and the use of an apartment building and a former Yellowknife inn as places for self-isolation.

The Aspen Apartments, a residential apartment complex just outside of Yellowknife's downtown core, is being used by the territorial government during the pandemic. There are 36 units for people without housing security to self-isolate. The building is on a temporary lease from the federal government and was acquired specifically for COVID-19 purposes. 

In an interview with CBC News, Housing Minister Paulie Chinna was asked what was next for Aspen Apartments users after being cleared as COVID-19 negative and allowed to leave. 

"Right now we don't have a solution, to be honest," Chinna said. "There is a limited amount of [public housing] units in the city of Yellowknife."

There is no immediate long-term housing plan for those temporarily housed at the Aspen Apartments in Yellowknife. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Chinna said people who stay at the apartments are dealt with on a case-by-case basis when they are no longer a COVID-19 risk.

Currently one person is isolating in Aspen House, according to territorial government spokesperson Trista Haughland. Thirteen people have used the apartments since they became available.

The Arnica Inn will be refurbished after the pandemic for use as a long-term residence for women. It is now housing 14 people who would be at risk of severe symptoms if they were to get COVID-19.

Homeless need homes: advocate

Community advocate Lydia Bardak says that she sees the Aspen and Arnica spaces as "medical facilities" — and that what homeless people really need to prevent community spread of COVID-19 are dedicated homes. 

Yellowknife has seen a loss of space in shelters like the Salvation Army, which reduced its number of beds this spring because of the pandemic.

"There are people who are sleeping rough because of the limited space," Bardak said.

'Homeless individuals have really been left out of the loop on this,' Lydia Bardak says. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Bardak says people without homes are often refused hand sanitizer because vendors think they'll drink it. She adds that the sudden shuttering of the library, lockdown of the day shelter, and hiatus of the print edition of Yellowknife's newspaper left many homeless Yellowknifers struggling to keep up with the changes happening around them.

"Homeless individuals have really been left out of the loop on this," Bardak said.

Chinna says her department is trying to free up the public housing units that the territory currently has, by getting more public housing tenants on track to home ownership. 

She added that the department is also adding new building projects outside Yellowknife to add housing stock in small communities where overcrowding is a problem, including the construction of a duplex building in Ulukhaktok that will be started this summer. 

Chinna said if the Northwest Territories had a COVID-19 outbreak, the well-being of people without homes would be a priority. "We've got to look at the safety of the individual," she said. "We're trying to work with what we have."


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