A little over two weeks before emergency funding runs out, the Northwest Territories government is "optimistic" fresh cash will be found for Yellowknife's Spruce Bough housing program.
Spruce Bough, operated by the Yellowknife Women's Society at a former motel, is a transitional housing facility that quickly opened at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide a safe space for people experiencing homelessness to isolate.
Since then, Spruce Bough has introduced a managed alcohol program, meals, and a medical outreach service.
Spruce Bough uses pandemic response money from the N.W.T.'s Department of Health and Social Services, but that funding runs out at the end of September.
Jeremy Bird, a spokesperson for the department, said the territorial government was still working on a new arrangement but hoped to have a deal "in time for the end of the current contract."
“Although nothing has been confirmed as of yet, we are optimistic that this will be finalized before the current arrangement ends at the end of this month," Bird said by email.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson had earlier called on the territorial government to commit to long-term funding for the facility.
Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said there is now a waiting list for Spruce Bough accommodation.
Rao said she anticipated funding until at least March 31, which she said would "give us time to figure out the long term."
The deadline to keep Spruce Bough funded looms as officials struggle to keep the doors open at other programs for Yellowknife's most vulnerable people.
The city's downtown day shelter and sobering centre have both closed as so many staff are either sick or isolating during a growing COVID-19 outbreak. The territory closed a temporary day shelter at the start of the summer and has found nowhere to reopen it. The N.W.T.'s health authority said on Saturday it has too few resources to set up an emergency shelter.
Rao said she does not understand why the initial temporary shelter, operated at a downtown building commandeered by the territorial government from November 2020 until May 2021, closed.
“They had an emergency order that allowed them to have a day shelter running," she said. "They had that service set up and now there is going to be a scramble by the government to recreate that infrastructure.
“We were telling them … even with loosening of restrictions, there just wasn’t enough space before the pandemic and there weren’t enough services before."
Rao said territorial health staff were "amazing and committed to serving this population," but decision-makers needed to back that up with funding.
“The thing that boggles my mind is all this funding that went to the COVID Secretariat – which even goes into 2022 – that basically grew the size of government and created more government jobs," she said.
"But the services we need for the most vulnerable members of our population and residential school survivors, that just didn’t seem to be a financial priority."
Rao said the "pre-existing epidemic of homelessness and trauma" needs to be prioritized.
“Sometimes it seems like right now we’re just caring for the unhoused because them getting sick poses a risk to the rest of us, and that’s not the way it should be," she said.
"We need to be looking out for our residential school survivors, and our Elders, and the people who the colonial project has harmed."
Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio