Jenny Gibbons describes the last few years as nothing short of a whirlwind.
Precarious housing is a reality for her – she does not have ready access to a telephone – but she remains at the forefront of a growing campaign to open a new homeless shelter in Arviat.
Gibbons said her own experience with precarious housing inspired her to help others.
“I didn’t have any place to go,” she said of a housing situation she faced several years ago.
She turned to social services “but they just told us that there’s no place for people like me when I needed a place to stay,” she said. “And while I was going through that, I started seeing people going through the same thing and it hurt me a lot and I know how it feels.”
“That’s when I started thinking that we need a shelter in our community,” she continued.
In 2019, she took part in Inspire Nunavut, an entrepreneurial leadership and employment skills program.
After considering a number of business ideas, from hairdressing to recreation, Gibbons decided a shelter in the community to address its social problems was needed.
Today, organizers are looking at funding resources and fundraising ideas to support the concept of a permanent shelter in the community.
Gibbons said Lindsay Turner, director of poverty reduction at Nunavut’s Department of Family Services, and her team have been helping with planning and support at this early stage.
“The project as we’re looking at it now, it’s really in its infancy,” said organizer Amanda Hanson Main. “We’re just getting started and trying to amass a board of directors and then we can proceed with applying for funding and that, unfortunately, could probably go on for a while.”
“There is nothing right now in Arviat,” she continued. “We’re the third largest population center in the territory, and we do not have a shelter. But we have already a lot of interest in the community from residents who are interested in sitting on the board of directors.”
In terms of a location for the shelter, Hanson Main said “there isn’t much in Arviat in terms of available real estate that would be ideal or even adequate for this purpose.”
“Hopefully, there are funding pots that are available that would support building something new from the ground up,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting to think that that could be reality.”
An Arviat resident for six years, Hanson Main works in environmental assessment and community engagement, “so a little bit removed from shelters and social programs” but nevertheless thinks this is an important project because “the social services are really lacking” in Nunavut, she said.
“When Jenny (Gibbons) and I happened to bump into each other, early on we identified that we have this shared passion and compassion for people that are experiencing homelessness or experiencing domestic situations that might warrant a need for a place to stay,” she said.
Homelessness remains a problem in the territory
In 2018, the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Family Services released the Nunavut Hidden Homelessness Survey and found over 400 people in Arviat, Gjoa Haven, Pond Inlet and Clyde River were experiencing some form of precarious housing.
Of the total, 146 were in Arviat.
Residents with no place to stay turn to “friends, families and relatives. But something more structured – something that has support services – for people experiencing those sorts of harsh crises is needed,” said Hanson Main.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the community’s lack of comprehensive services when it comes to homelessness, said Hanson Main.
“During this pandemic, the rates of domestic violence and difficulties with mental health have really risen,” she said. “And not having places for people to go to in crisis is a major limitation.”
“Ultimately, the people who are often the most impacted are children,” she continued. “Whether that means your child is living in a house that’s overcrowded, or whether a child is living with a parent who is homeless and has to bounce around between homes, I think that that type of instability is really demoralizing and hard for people and families.”