The Whitehorse Shelter is a catch-all for the Yukon’s most vulnerable. People show up for food, housing and company, but it’s not always a comfortable mix.
Shelter staff see all kinds — thin and frail, young and old; many are visibly intoxicated. Others keep to themselves, talking or pacing along a wall. Groups hang out at tables or sit on benches sharing drinks from paper cups.
“Honestly, we’re trying to continue to do the best job we can,” said Jayme Curtis, acting operations manager at the Whitehorse Shelter on May 26. “There’s no magic wand here.”
Curtis has been acting manager for over a year. He admits it is challenging to have such a mix – people with serious mental health disorders and active substance users – all in one building.
“The shelter is for everybody and we’re trying to do what we can for everyone,” he said.
Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, has long complained about the breadth of people that the shelter is supposed to serve. She says it is unreasonable to believe that one building could work for everybody.
Tom Amson agrees: “One shoe doesn’t fit all.”
Amson, retired after 25 years of working in the Yukon’s alcohol and drug treatment system, spoke with the News on May 20. He is disenchanted with the increasing institutionalization of a system that was once designed to support people in recovery.
In the mid 1980s, Amson sobered up in the Crossroads treatment centre, a non-profit started by a group of recovering alcoholics. Afterwards, he started working in the doublewide trailer that served as the Yukon’s detox centre in the 1980s, which housed 20 clients and had a homely, open-door approach. Then he worked as a counsellor in the residential treatment centre for 15 years.
Now with fewer beds, hard-nosed rules, and upper management disconnected from the people they are paid to help, he says, “It’s all about the government saving money and keeping street people off the streets.”
Karen Nicloux sees the same thing. As a former street person with a criminal past, now 12 years clean and sober, she visits the shelter and makes crafts with people a couple afternoons per week. She is a member of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, and says what she sees what is going on at the shelter bothers her a lot.
According to her, people buy, sell, share and consume alcohol and drugs in the building all the time. In her bi-weekly visits, she’s grown aghast at the lack of programming, rules and structure.
The shelter is open every day to anyone and everyone, whether they are housed elsewhere or not.
But according to Curtis, open drug taking and drinking is discouraged, with people being asked to keep liquor bottles and drugs and their paraphernalia in lockers.
Nicloux says that clients work around that by drinking alcohol or hand sanitizer from paper cups, and that drug dealers drop in and out of the shelter all day long.
Harm reduction advocates say no-barrier formats meet people where they’re at, but Nicloux says it’s actually “keeping people where they are at.” She says people are enabled and made helpless and dependant.
She says the shelter only serves to re-colonize indigenous peoples and that it merely institutionalizes them again.
No path to recovery
Nicloux said that people at the shelter tell her, “We can’t get sober here. There’s no point in even trying.”
Amson thinks that higher-ups in the system don’t realize that people can’t recover around people who are using.
“If they really did [know this], why would they be doing what they’re doing? You need to demonstrate that you get that, and that some people don’t want to be addicted,” he said. “And there has to be a venue or a stream or way out of that.”
Kate Mechan, Safe At Home’s executive director, confirmed on June 6 that there are no places for people to be housed in sober environments, even after a detox stint or after treatment, unless they can secure something in the private sector.
High rents and low shelter allowances for social assistance make it difficult to access those private sector options.
Curtis too, when asked, could not say where in the government system there is a place to live for people wanting to be safe and sober.
The Cornerstone project, which will build 45 affordable units downtown by June 15, has plans for a sober floor.
Gillian Hardie, executive director of Opportunities Yukon, said the alcohol- and drug-free floor was requested by tenants themselves. It will not be officially sanctioned or enforced, but it demonstrates that there is a demand. But anyone wanting to get in will have to wait. The building is full and there are 125 people on the wait list, with only 12 units on the sober floor.
Meanwhile, Curtis said that people at the shelter have to wait for beds at Mental Health and Substance Use’s withdrawal services the same as anyone else. After detoxing, a person without a home would have to return to the shelter to wait for access to residential treatment. Sometimes community people, after detoxifying at the hospital, return to the shelter as their only place to stay as well.
“I suspect it can be challenging for them,” Curtis said.
Amson explains, “If you put people that have a desire to get sober with the people that have no intention of getting sober — they’re like oil and water. It doesn’t mix. You’re in different places, mentally, physically, spiritually.
“At some point, those that really want to change are going to need a different stream.”
Contact Lawrie Crawford at email@example.com