Uquutaq Society's low barrier shelter cancels expansions, cites insufficient funds

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Laurel McCorriston,  executive director of Uquutaq Society, says the low-barrier shelter won't be expanded for the time being as it does not have enough funds to operate it.  (Travis Burke/CBC - image credit)
Laurel McCorriston, executive director of Uquutaq Society, says the low-barrier shelter won't be expanded for the time being as it does not have enough funds to operate it. (Travis Burke/CBC - image credit)

The expansion of the Uquutaq Society's proposed low-barrier shelter in Iqaluit was cancelled this week after the organization said it didn't get enough money from the Nunavut Department of Family Services to run an expanded service.

Laurel McCorriston, the society's executive director, said it's "heartbreaking" to not get all the funds needed to provide more shelter for the city's vulnerable population.

"These people who get housing subsidies make over $150,000 [to] $200,000 a year. And Inuit, are living outside," McCorriston said. "I'm dumbfounded, and heartbroken, by the priorities of the government."

The organization had to apply to the city to get approval for the expansion and had to go through a public hearing in order to expand the low barrier shelter, which welcomes people whether or not they are sober. The society projected it needed $1.3 million to run the shelter in a bigger building, and Family Services gave it $871,000 from this year's budget to do so.

But McCorriston said if they went ahead with the expansion, the society would be in a $400,000 deficit at the end of the year, which is why the Uquutaq Society withdrew its application.

She said COVID-19 makes it more expensive to run shelters, including costs associated with laundry and sanitation. The society is spending around $12,000 a month on laundry alone, she said.

The current low barrier shelter is near the hospital. Uquutaq Society was trying to move it to the former men's shelter, building 778, which is near the beach. This would have increased the capacity of the shelter from 17 beds to 42, a much needed expansion, McCorriston said, as they currently turn away people from the men's shelter and the low barrier shelter.

"If the Department of Family Services wants to work together with us to find another site, or to fund us more so that we could move to another site, then we'll have those discussions," she said, adding that could be in late summer or fall.

In an email to CBC, the Department of Family Services said it values the work Uquutaq does in Iqaluit, and "have supported their expansion of services."

"Homelessness Initiatives funding is designed to support and contribute to the success of societies and hamlets running shelters," it reads in part.

"Government funding alone is not sufficient to end the current situation," the statement continues, noting that "the entire community of Iqaluit" needs to support groups like the Uquutaq Society.

The email also said no shelter project or service funded by Homelessness Initiatives is 100 per cent funded by the Nunavut government and that its program was designed to "provide a contribution and a partnership, not full sponsorship and control."

Resident push back

Residents have complained about violence, drinking and garbage in the beach area, near the building where Uquutaq wanted to move an expanded low barrier shelter.

The beach also has several shacks where people who don't have a home hang out, live and sometimes party. Two of the shacks caught on fire not long ago, and over the weekend a man was attacked by three people there. RCMP arrested the individuals, who were later released without charges.

Madeleine Redfern lives in the area and said the location isn't suitable. She said she has spoken to many landlords who have other spaces for the shelter to go.

"People are really concerned about the plan," she said.

"While we think we need a low barrier shelter we need to see Uquutaq working with the community, working with the community partners to find a suitable location."

Addictions treatment centre needed: MLA

This past weekend the RCMP started patrolling the beach, and they will for the rest of the summer.

But an Iqaluit MLA said the violence around the beach area needs a better solution than that.

Adam Arreak Lightstone, the MLA for Iqaluit-Manirajak, said he is happy to see more patrols in the area, but he worries that this will only displace the problem to other parts of the city instead of fixing it.

"Iqaluit has an alcohol problem and alcohol dependency affects every demographic in our community," Arreak Lightstone said. "But, maybe more predominantly those who are disadvantaged."

Many of the issues on the beach are related to lack of housing, addictions and mental health.

Arreak Lightstone said he would like to see the addictions treatment centre built along with more housing in the city.

No other expansion for plans for now

Right now, McCorriston said the Uquutaq Society is working toward getting charitable status, so it can increase its ability to fundraise, but added that process could take one to two years.

In the meantime, McCorriston said the shelter "just won't be expanding."

She said the focus now will be on the men's shelter, which has experienced a lot of staffing turnover. "We need to solidify the foundation of that program," she said.

McCorriston said she was also taken aback by some of the public's reaction to the prospect of the shelter at building 778.

"I didn't expect the kind of reaction because of the change in the program, which was going to make it safer than previously, where we're going to have drunk people inside instead of outside," McCorriston said.

Next time, she said she'll consult with neighbours before submitting any proposals to the city.

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