Almost one year ago to the day of this week’s election, Rockhill apartments burned to the ground leaving 33 low-income housing occupants and more than 80 people without a home.
If the incident presented one stark reminder it is that many Northerners face precarious housing situations.
The YWCA as an organization has about a $6.5 million annual budget and a staff of more than 100 people.
Rockhill, which also housed administrative and programming space, was a revenue generator. As a transitional housing apartment, families that suffered from addictions or violence were given space to live and readjust their lives through YWCA programming and staff support.
At any given time, there had been between 50 and 70 families on a wait list requesting housing, according to executive director Lyda Fuller.
Today, a hole sits on GNWT-owned property where the Rockhill apartments once stood. The YWCA continues to work with private housing providers to house former occupants in units across the city.
Fuller said there are very early plans to expand Lynn’s Place at 5015 54 Street to make up for the housing loss.
“We are still looking for additional housing because we want to replace the housing that was lost in the fire,” she said.
“Right now we are examining expanding Lynn’s Place. So at some point when we are further along with what we are doing, we will need political support for funding and will probably be lobbying the federal government through its (National Housing) co-investment fund.”
Fuller said Rockhill was a place where people embraced collective living and helped one another with everyday tasks like cooking or babysitting but this has been lost, she said.
In response, one of her biggest requests of MLA candidates leading up to Tuesday’s election has been to provide “a continuum of supportive housing” so that residents who need assisted living due to distress in their lives can get it.
“I think the problem for me has been that some people need what I call congregate living where there are more supports on site,” she said. “With Rockhill, we had staff there during the day that were easily accessed and that could really support the families. When (tenants) are scattered, they don’t have that same level of intensity of support.”
In Yellowknife, there are four candidates running in four different electoral districts who have a background working with the YWCA.
According to them, being involved with the organization provided a deeper knowledge of the challenges faced by women and families in need, including low-income housing and other services formerly delivered at Rockhill.
Cherish Winsor, a candidate in Kam Lake and a past YWCA president, said after the fire she didn’t think the GNWT’s response was sufficient and said the territorial government needs to do more to support services that NGOs, such as the YWCA, offer.
“It was more that we have been here 52 years and we offer a lot of services and this (fire) could have really bankrupted us,” said Winsor, a single mother of five children who has herself experienced homelessness.
“We would have liked to have seen financial support and a willingness to work with us and find solutions rather than push us off when we can’t survive on our own.”
Katrina Nokleby, a former YWCA board member and one of two candidates running in Great Slave where Rockhill was located, said addressing poverty and low-income housing needs across the North and finding ways for NGOs to more easily access GNWT funding for social services remains a priority.
“I don’t think we have made much progress with Rockhill in a year,” she said. “Maybe the fire has raised awareness of how many services we’re (YWCA) providing and the importance of the YWCA to the community.”
Nokleby’s opponent in Great Slave, Patrick Scott, said that the next term will be a challenge to address at least two housing holes in the electoral district – one of them being Rockhill.
The other, he notes, is the former Polaris Apartments at the corner of 49 Street and 52 Avenue.
“I’m not sure if it is doable, but we need to look at options and discuss thoroughly and engage the community and riding to see if something can happen,” said Scott. “The YWCA needs to get back on better feet.”
Caroline Wawzonek, a past-vice president of the YWCA and now an MLA candidate in Yellowknife South, agreed that the one-year anniversary comes at a time when people are thinking about broader issues of homelessness and social issues.
“I do think it is interesting timing how the one year (after the fire) comes when people are thinking about social issues downtown and homelessness during the election,” she said. “I think there is an opportunity where, although government isn’t there to fix every challenge or problem by itself, can support organizations along the way.”
“Rockhill has never been replaced, but it is not for the lack of desire,” she continued.
She said the GNWT will have to consider addressing the losses that resulted from the fire.
“There is now no hub and that is needed in transitional housing,” she said.
Julie Green, the only incumbent MLA who has worked with the YWCA, said she hasn’t heard the issue raised much during door-to-door campaigning, but she has encountered previous Rockhill occupants living in new private housing.
“The fire took 30-plus suites occupied by tenants off the market,” she said. “While campaigning I have noticed that there are surplus suites in apartment buildings but that is market housing and not affordable housing.
“So I would still like to see Rockhill replaced with another building.”
Green said an expansion of Lynn’s Place would be doable and she can foresee ground being broken during the course of the 19th Assembly, however it would depend on territorial and federal financing and any fundraising the YWCA can do.
“It isn’t going to be quick to put all of that back together,” she said.
Fuller said it is very encouraging to see four past YWCA affiliates running in the election.
“Oh yes, very much and it is very encouraging to see four women who have either been on our board or on staff or both,” she said.
“I think what is encouraging to me is that they understand the client group that the organization serves and what the needs are,” she continued. “That is a big piece in being helpful in the future and the need to understand what people are facing, especially when it comes to things like food and housing security and what our method is for helping with that.”