Yellowknife city councillors have unanimously approved the spending of federal emergency homelessness funding on more than a dozen initiatives.
Councillors met on Monday to review how Yellowknife's homelessness community advisory board says the city should spend an extra $1.7 million in pandemic-related cash from the federal Reaching Home fund.
Some of the money will pay for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to provide on-the-land programming and a community hunt open to those experiencing homelessness in the city.
“There’s enormous opportunity to welcome people into spaces that are safe for them, that are on the land, that are traditional uses,” said city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett. (Bassi-Kellett's title also changed on Monday. She was previously the city's senior administrator but councillors amended that to city manager, in line with other Canadian municipalities.)
“It’s not just limited to the members of the Yellowknives Dene, but certainly something that is working to support people who are vulnerable and could really benefit from having a back-to-the-land experience of engaging and connection with people," Bassi-Kellett said.
Under the federal fund's terms, the money had to be allocated by March 31 and spent by the end of June – a deadline that could not be extended.
Just under $800,000 will be spent on wage top-ups for groups that provide relevant services, covering people's rental arrears, leasing YWCA units, and expanding the Somba K'e Park washrooms' opening hours.
A second sum of $885,000 will cover initiatives like an on-the-land breakfast program, the community hunt, a YWCA food program, payments for cleaning supplies, and a range of other supports.
Those two pockets of cash come from a specific section of the Reaching Home fund dedicated to COVID-19.
Council also on Monday approved the separate spending of $957,000 in regular Reaching Home funding, not associated with the pandemic, for the year ahead.
That money will go toward a Housing First program run by the Yellowknife Women’s Society, homelessness prevention and diversion programs, and Indigenous case management.
Councillor Julian Morse said he supported the advisory board's recommendations but felt federal restrictions on the pandemic-related funding prevented long-term solutions being found.
The advisory board has said the short time-frame for spending the money meant longer-term, permanent housing projects couldn't be figured out in time.
Morse said the federal restrictions meant the city was "throwing" money at programs "because we have no choice and don't want to lose the funding."
“It’s supposed to be dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 but I just don’t see much, in any of the things that are proposed here, related to mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 and homelessness in our community,” Morse said.
“It seems in the absence of being able to identify programs that achieve that, we’ve gone to funding other things.”
Yellowknife’s mayor, Rebecca Alty, said she planned to pass on that feedback to the federal government.
Alty said the city "would have liked to have found direct housing projects" but, as the money had to be spent by the end of June, even arranging leases would have meant "evicting everybody July 1 because there's no more money to run the program."
Councillor Stacie Smith, who chairs the advisory board on homelessness, said the funding restrictions did at least allow inventive approaches.
“In terms of mitigating homelessness, doing that doesn’t often mean having a roof over one’s head," said Smith.
"We can provide as many rooms, as many apartment places for people to stay, but we’re not getting to the root of why they’re in the situation that they’re in.
“We found other opportunities where we could put our energies to be able to assist them in those holistic methods that might reach them a lot better than the norm.
“We continue to do the same things and put the funding toward the same things but we’re seeing this cycle continue over and over again. So we’re trying to change the way we’re thinking to meet their needs.”
Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio