Transitional housing needed

T. Giilck

Homelessness is a growing problem in Inuvik, and the North in general.

That's the word from Dr. Michael Young, an associate professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria who's been studying the issue locally. He presented his initial findings recently in Inuvik.

"Homelessness is generally regarded as a recent phenomenon in the Northwest Territories (NWT)," Young stated in his research proposal. "Since the late 1990s, emergency shelters in urbanizing Northern centres such as Yellowknife and Inuvik have reported a steady increase in use, representing a rise in absolute, or 'visible,' homelessness.

The vast majority of homeless men and women in both communities are aboriginal."

He goes on to say "the migration of rural populations to regional centres and the nexus between homelessness, addictions, and mental health problems remain poorly understood, as does the need for, and availability of, services required by these persons"

In a telephone interview March 21, Young said the need for some kind of "transitional" housing is needed as soon as possible to alleviate some of the strain. That, however, is not a long-term solution.

Young estimated there could be as many as 75 people in Inuvik that could be classified as homeless. He prefers the term "hard to house." You could also call them, by the same token, "hard to employ."

"Things are different for someone who's lived their life in survival mode," he said. "Survival mode is living day-to-day, hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute."

That means homeless people often have no sense of stability or priorities beyond the immediate.

That's an attitude unfortunately reinforced by the people and organizations trying to help them more often than not, Young said.

"Hard-to-house people have a culture of their own," he said. "There's a sense of powerlessness, a resentment of authority, and they feel like they're at the whims of the housing authority. They feel pushed around. They live lives of disaster."

They don't have the same discipline that a so-called average person does to conform to schedules and deadlines and routine, he added, which makes it hard for them to work. The normal socialization process either broke down for them, or perhaps was never there.

Frequently, when a hard-to-house person does make an attempt to return to a more normal lifestyle, they are undone by that lack of discipline and socialization, Young explained. Earning a pay cheque is like winning a lottery to them, he said, and a sense of euphoria and giddiness take the place of caution and restraint.

Hard-to-house people also feel an intense loyalty and connection with each other, he said, and an inter-dependence.

"They rely on each other," Young said.

Often, friends will find one of their own who made their way into a job and more secure housing, and that frequently results in evictions. That sense of loyalty often means doors are open to friends, which causes problems. If not, the homeless will often loiter about.

"There's no room to hide in a small town," Young said.

The general public often simply doesn't comprehend just how radically different the perspective of the homeless is, Young said. They're not comfortable with the chasm between their life-experiences and that of the homeless.

"A lot of people don't want to see those differences. It's not a comfortable concept. They just like the idea of 'get a job' and think that solves everything. It doesn't."

Young said a sobering thought for people is that statistics show that most Canadians are only a few paycheques away from homelessness.

Young said there are 45 people on the waiting list for housing here in town, while others won't be on the list because they're not currently eligible.

He attributed some of their difficulties to a lack of housing, specifically transitional housing.

"We need something for people who are on the way to rock bottom or have hit it and are trying to come back up," he said.

"This is not just a result of boom and bust. There's also a dislocation of aboriginal people who formerly lived off the land and now don't have the skills to adjust."

That's exacerbated, Young said, by the typical social problems, including addictions and mental health issues.

"It's a chronic issue that's just now showing its head," he said.

"We need to make it obvious there is a problem, and we need to document how these hard-to-house people live. There are no magic bullets."

He said there's a huge amount of support from virtually every agency in town, which is a good starting point.

Homelessness tends to be viewed as 'out of place' in rural locales, Young also noted. There is also still an unfortunate romanticism about the North that suggest people can simply disappear into the back country and live off the land. That's not an option any more for most people.

Although Young presented his findings in March it appears few local representatives attended the meeting.

Grant Hood, who is the treasurer for the Inuvik Homeless Shelter, said he was unaware of anyone from the board attending the meeting. He added as far as he was aware, the board of the shelter has had no contact with Young.

Other people contacted from various agencies said much the same thing.

Young's next step is to hold consultations with the homeless in hopes of getting more input from their perspective.