Ending Yellowknife homelessness would help 1,500 people but may cost $170M, says consultant

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A 10-year plan to end homelessness in Yellowknife could cost $170 million, the consultant developing the plan told city councillors this week.

Alina Turner, who previously worked on a similar scheme for Calgary, admitted the sum is "a huge amount" but said the end result would be worth the money.

While a 2015 point-in-time count identified 139 homeless people in the city, Turner projects the true figure of those experiencing homelessness at some point each year to be 1,500 or more.

"That is about 10 per cent of your population," she said during a presentation at City Hall. "By comparison, Calgary would be at about five per cent. You have double the rate of homelessness prevalence compared to a major city that is known to have a major homelessness challenge."

'Quite shocking'

Turner has been working on the plan since February and was delivering an update before her final report in June.

Councillors reacted with enthusiasm at the prospect of a strategy to end homelessness, but expressed concern at some statistics and the associated price tag.

"It is quite shocking. It's a huge increase," said Coun. Julian Morse on hearing that 1,500 or more people in Yellowknife are at risk of homelessness, compared to 900 in 2009, the latest year for which specific data is available.

To reach the 1,500 estimate, Turner used information from emergency shelters and statistics related to core housing need, which is a way of measuring residents most in need of housing assistance.

"By all accounts, that number has increased and it's something that resonates with the regular Joe walking downtown," she told CBC.

"They're seeing more of a visible presence of people that are vulnerable."

Doing the math

Comparing the report's 1,500 figure to the 139 people identified by the point-in-time count, Coun. Linda Bussey said, "I think we all knew that, but nobody wanted to say it. We didn't have any data.

"But this is very clear. It is not just a number up in the air. She really has done the research and the math around it."

Bussey, the City's spokesperson on homelessness, added that the projected cost may need to be "toned down for our reality."

"It's a lot of work, it's a lot of money, it is scary," she said, "but it's not a report that is going to stay on a shelf. This is something we can implement."

According to Turner, the 10-year plan includes more than $50 million to build dozens of new housing units and $9 million per year in operational costs (such as caseworkers, mental health and addictions workers, and rent subsidies).

She added that the figure initially presented to councillors — $147.1 million over 10 years — could realistically end up as "a cost in the $170 million range."

"You need to look at this as an investment," said Turner. "Those dollars are actually generating cost savings to your public systems.

"By placing people in Housing First, for instance, you're going to see a reduction in emergency shelter and emergency room use, a reduction in ambulatory services or police holding cells, or jail.

"That $9 million per year in supports generates $6 million in cost savings for these other systems."

Taking leadership

Calgary's 10-year plan to end homelessness was launched in 2008 under the auspices of Turner's former employer, the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

Since then, the foundation claims almost 8,000 people have been housed and 30 agencies now share data to make the process of helping people more efficient.

However, Alberta's economic downturn has hindered the plan's progress. As of October 2016, with one year of the plan remaining, at least 3,000 people in the city were homeless.

In Yellowknife, Bussey believes one question still to be answered is who takes ownership of the 10-year plan. The City and territorial government have been consulted, while the draft report recommends that the migration of homeless individuals to Yellowknife may be stemmed if smaller communities develop similar strategies.

"It's not just a conversation about what Yellowknife needs. It's about what the N.W.T. needs," added Turner.

"Up to this point, this was a concept, something symbolic. Now that we are putting figures, actions and accountabilities to it, people can get their heads around it in a different way.

"I think it's the right time for Yellowknife to take leadership as a community as well."

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