'An emergency situation': Advocate urges Whitehorse to allow homeless people to camp in more areas

·3 min read
A view of downtown Whitehorse. There are 200 people plus 60 children who are homeless right now in Whitehorse, according the Safe At Home Society's by name list, which tracks homelessness in the city.  (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)
A view of downtown Whitehorse. There are 200 people plus 60 children who are homeless right now in Whitehorse, according the Safe At Home Society's by name list, which tracks homelessness in the city. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)

The Yukon Status of Women Council is urging the City of Whitehorse to allow people to camp in certain greenspaces around the city this summer, citing "unprecedented" levels of homelessness.

The women's council said in a letter to city council last week that it was concerned many people don't have safe places to live this summer. The organization followed up with a presentation to a standing committee of city council on Monday.

The executive director of the women's council, Aja Mason, said there are 200 people on the by-name list, a tool used by the Safe At Home Society to track homelessness in the city.

"And by that, I mean 200 folks who have, you know, indicated themselves as homeless, [plus] 60 children. And of that 260 people, 87 identify as women," said Mason.

According to Neena MacKinnon of the Safe At Home Society, who was with Mason at the presentation Monday evening, there were 95 people on the list at the same time last year.

"So we're in some pretty unprecedented territory right now," added Mason. "This is an emergency situation."

Temporary measure

Mason asked the city to temporarily amend its bylaw that prohibits people from camping in greenspaces or on private property. People who contravene the existing bylaw are subject to fines and may have items seized.

She asked that certain areas, such as the Robert Service Way Campground (currently closed until 2023) or the Takhini Arena property, be available for homeless people to camp. A bylaw amendment could also allow for people to stay in areas such as church parking lots, she said.

"[We're looking for] at least that one piece of recognition that their stuff [of homeless people who are camping] isn't going to get destroyed, that they're not going to be forcibly removed, that they're not going to be fined," explained Mason.

Submitted by Aja Mason
Submitted by Aja Mason

She said the temporary measures would also send a message to organizations and other property owners that they could potentially allow for a space for people to camp.

MacKinnon added that the Safe at Home Society and others who work to help the homeless population have received several requests for tents and for tenting equipment.

Mason presented her request to city council on Monday and said that while she hasn't received an official response, she didn't get the sense there was much political will to amend the bylaw.

"It's a pretty disappointing response," she said. "I think a lot of the advocates who are working tirelessly are distraught by the lack of political will and the diffusion of responsibility."

'Confluence of factors'

Mason said there are several reasons why there are so many homeless people in Whitehorse now, including the opioid crisis and the tainted drug supply issue, the closure of the Robert Service Way Campground and the landslides that have taken place along the city's clay cliffs.

"The clay cliffs [have been] a space of refuge where a lot of folks have typically in the past camped in tents over the summer," she said.

"I should note also that, you know, many folks over the last two years of the pandemic have been staying in hotels and motels. And as tourism is opening back up, we're seeing that most of the hotels have kept folks out."

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