Whitehorse poverty advocates are working in tandem with the Department of Health and Social Services to champion for more addiction services and safety measures at the increasingly volatile Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.
“I’ve seen so much pain and agony in this last six months from these people that are suffering, because nobody is helping them,” Annette Peters told the Star Wednesday. “This is the lowest point I’ve ever seen the shelter.”
Peters is a recent graduate of Voices Influencing Change. The five-week program helps Yukoners with lived experience of poverty explore their story and advocate for better policy.
The Voices program is hosted by the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.
Next Wednesday, Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost will meet with the two organizations to discuss improvement strategies for the shelter.
Voices Influencing Change facilitator Kerry Nolan says she believes the meeting to be essential for improving the experiences of shelter users.
“It’s groups like ours, and voices like Annette’s, (that) are voices for the more vulnerable people who don’t have their voice, or aren’t able to use their voice,” she said.
The meeting will take place more than a week after Frost released a statement addressed to Yukoners listing action items for shelter improvement (see last Monday’s and Wednesday’s Stars).
The list included a block watch presence, a redesigned outdoor meeting space, an EMS worker on-site, meals for shelter guests only and increased programming and community engagement.
For Peters, the minister’s plan comes up short on addressing the real issues.
“This (action plan) is meant for the businesses, for the people who don’t utilize the shelter, for the people who probably have never even been inside the shelter,” Peters said.
She has lived the experience of poverty in Whitehorse and once frequented the shelter’s predecessor, the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope.
Now, she lives in an apartment across the street from the shelter and uses her training with the anti-poverty coalition to advocate for change.
Peters says her first priority is safety for those utilizing the shelter and living around it, and suggests training Kwanlin Dün peace officers as a better alternative to the RCMP.
These safety measures should look after members of the outside community as well as the inside community, she said. They include sober shelter residents who are weary of the situation and residents who frequently harm themselves while under the influence.
“If you’re sober, or an elderly person, how safe is that?” Peters asked.
“Our whole community has been affected by this. It’s not good to be outcasted in your own environment.”
She added that the current situation wouldn’t feel safe for a permanent on-site EMS worker.
Still, beefing up security at the shelter is complicated because of the level of training that is necessary in defence, communication, trauma and overdose response.
Beyond agreeing that increased security is a necessity, Peters said the minister’s recommendations won’t foster long-term positive change.
“That’s still not going back to the root of the issue,” she said. “It seems like they’re just trying to put a Band-aid over it. But we’re not going to be happy until we know our community members are safe.”
The real improvements will come from increased counselling services for mental health and addiction issues, she said.
“(The minister) needs to look inside at the people and realize it’s the people that need help. Not the community outside, but the community inside.
“If you start getting counsellors in there and you start trying to help these people, maybe it’ll change.”
Peters added that increased support should include those who don’t suffer from addiction.
“There’s more than alcohol and drug addicts that are transients,” she said. “There’s people with mental disabilities and people on their healing journey that need support as well.”
The dangerous environment at the shelter creates an unsafe space for those trying to live in sobriety and use shelter facilities like showers and meal services, Peters said.
Christine Tapp, the department’s director of social supports, oversees shelter operations.
She told the Star her department is fighting to find long-term solutions of the kind Peters is advocating for. However, the situation is challenging.
“We’re seeing individuals who are having complicated and unmet social challenges,” she said. “We’re providing a space where they are welcomed and we want to connect with them.”
Since the government took over shelter operations early this year, occupancy has skyrocketed to four times the numbers reported by the Sally Ann.
Tapp thinks the significant rise might be owing to the shelter’s low-barrier policy, meaning tenants can receive a meal and a roof over their head without abstaining from alcohol or drugs. This is a dramatic shift from how Sally Ann operated the facility starting in late 2017.
“When we took over, we were very clear that we are operating a low-barrier shelter, which is a pretty significant challenge,” Tapp told the Star.
This challenge is made harder by the mixed-use system inherited from the Sally Ann approach.
A mixed-use shelter provides no separation of occupants at different stages of need or recovery. Sheltering the different population groups in one system creates “a very complex layering of different programs,” Tapp said.
Officials are looking to see if interior design solutions exist to solve the problem created by the mixed-use system, she added.
This would help to address Peters’ hope that sober shelter users will feel safe. However, they are watching to see how programming evolves at the shelter before making decisions.
For the moment, Tapp is expecting to announce some changes to shelter operations this fall.
Currently, her department is working with advocacy groups, inter-department partners and a shelter guest advisory committee to find a path worth forging.
Unable to release details until more decisions are made, Tapp suggested one change might include a peer-run block system. That “is recognized as best practice” in other communities.
Tapp’s team is also hoping to expand counselling services, and is working toward a partnership with the government’s Mental Wellness and Substance Abuse Services.
Currently, there is one social worker on-site for one-on-one support and a staff member working as a case aid.
Tapp clarified that contrary to Frost’s suggestion, there are no plans to limit meal services at this time.
The shelter’s exterior will also be renovated to create an intentional gathering space for guests. The current situation, which often sees crowds of shelter users gathered outside, has been a hot topic in the shelter debate thus far.
“I think what people see a lot is the outside of the facility, and it’s almost like it’s unfinished,” she said.
“This is obviously having an impact on other neighbours.”
Tapp added that she believes Whitehorse residents are basing too much judgment about the shelter’s status on the crowds outside, which signify heightened occupancy and “individuals feeling welcomed” to visit.
“(Residents) aren’t seeing the great things happening inside, and that is including the challenges.”
Peters says that since living across the street from the shelter, she’s found herself wrapped up in a stigma that is worsening in the city.
“It’s lumped us all as one,” she said. “If you live in the vicinity, you are living at the shelter.”
Peters recounted a recent experience where she was told to “go back to the shelter” while sitting outside her apartment. When she corrected her verbal assailant, they told her that “it’s all the same.”
“I’m not drinking, I’m not drugging, I have jobs,” she said. “It’s prejudice on their behalf. What they see is what they think they know.”