Yellowknife's Housing First eyes expansion and graduating 1st clients out of program

Five people in Yellowknife’s Housing First program have made it more than one year without an eviction, a milestone that has them preparing to graduate from the program.

Almost 2 years in, homelessness initiative has seen successes and challenges

Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, runs Housing First. She says changes to government programming have helped her clients get on their own two feet. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Five people in Yellowknife's Housing First program have made it more than one year without an eviction, a milestone that has them preparing to graduate from the program.

"There are some people who are quite independent," explained Bree Denning, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, the organization that runs Housing First. Housing First is a program that gets people into housing and provides support once they're there. 

"So we just kind of support them to solve some issues, but otherwise they are pretty well on their own."

According to Housing First's January-March 2018 quarterly report, those participants will be working to move on from the program this year. It's a milestone Denning doesn't take credit for — instead, she points to changes to the N.W.T. government's income support program.

"It's great to see the way the government has actually shifted," she said, pointing to one major problem — income support didn't cover rent.

According to Cherish Windsor, who works with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, the department worked with the Yellowknife Women's Society while Housing First was being implemented, and increased the amount it pays to better match the housing market.

The Housing First program was launched in Yellowknife in September 2016. The goal was to house 20 people, but since then, organizers have taken in a total of 24 clients.

This table shows how individual Housing First clients in Yellowknife have fared during their time in the program. Five participants have gone more than a year with no evictions, one has died, one has been hospitalized and one has been incarcerated. (Housing First report)

Denning explains their housing capacity is 20, so if one of her clients leaves their housing situation — as examples, one person is in jail while his charges make their way through the court system, and another is in hospital getting long-term care — the program can help others.

Housing First to expand into rapid housing

Denning acknowledges criticism her program has received for the way it manages intakes.

It can take years to move people out of Housing First, so others who need help — but aren't in as critical of a situation — are left waiting.

That's why her staff is finalizing agreements to provide rapid rehousing services.

"This gives us the opportunity to take people who are much closer to being on their feet, who are maybe employed, and maybe have gone to treatment … to get them on their own and into housing more quickly," said Denning, explaining she aims for a six-month turnover for people in this program.

Denning says rapid rehousing could be up and running by early fall.

Health care, advocacy challenges

A major challenge outlined in Housing First's quarterly report is access to quality health care.

"One participant experienced severe symptoms from alcohol withdrawal that adversely affected their medical and physical well being," states the report.

"The individual attempted to obtain medical assistance from hospital staff and was denied appropriate care and medication. Housing First had to advocate on the individual's behalf in order to obtain the appropriate treatment and medication."

Denning says she was interested to see a recent CBC North story about Jennifer Lafferty, who said she experienced cultural bias when accessing health care in Yellowknife.

"That's something we see in our folks pretty regularly when they are accessing health services," said Denning.

"They are highly vulnerable, so the time it takes — which is part of the system — the time it takes to be seen, the client may have progressed into another issue and they aren't necessarily seen for the health issue they originally presented with."

The Department of Health and Social Services hasn't provided a response to CBC's questions about these issues.

Denning says staff can accompany clients at appointments in order to advocate for them, or help deal with anxiety or stress while seeing a health-care provider.


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