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Struggling senior houseboater has nowhere else to turn

Penelope Shaw has to manipulate her walker from her houseboat near Jolliffe Island to the canoe ramp at the government dock when she needs to go to town.
Penelope Shaw has befriended dogs but she cannot find another place to live despite her growing needs, including coping with Parkinson’s disease and osteoarthritis. Photo courtesy of Nancy Vail

Penelope Shaw has to manipulate her walker from her houseboat near Jolliffe Island to the canoe ramp at the government dock when she needs to go to town.

For this longtime houseboater, now in her 70s and contending with Parkinson’s, the endeavour can take 15 minutes to half an hour, depending on snowpack and weather conditions.

She has no choice.

Cabs used to carry her back and forth but not anymore. Now, they drop her off with her supplies by the canoe ramp and she has to make her way over on foot with her goods in tow.

In the spring and summer, she throws her walker into a canoe and paddles to shore, always trying to beat the winds, waves and darkness, any of which could set in at any time.

The small two-room houseboat where this prospector/biologist has lived for close to 35 years has, in some ways, become a prison. There was a time not long ago when she was grateful for this little spot on the channel, and still loves it, but since the onslaught of Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and a bad knee — surgery is doubtful — she can’t get out much. It can be weeks between trips to shore.

She has tried to find a spot through AVENS or Northern United Place. Although she submitted all the relevant paperwork, she has not secured a space where life would be more manageable.

Interviewers at some of the institutions where she has applied for housing question whether she is physically capable of living in their housing units. She laughs when considering her canoe and walking trips back and forth, melting snow for water, and soon, how she will have to move her wood pile from the front of her houseboat to the back.

Her days on the boat end and start early since her only light is that from a small supply of solar power and one electrical plug thanks to the kindness of a neighbour. She’s up at 4.30 a.m. because that’s when the fire in her wood stove, her only source of heat, needs to be rekindled.

Some snowmobilers have become sympathetic to her plight and drive as close to her houseboat as possible, trying to pack the snow down so that when she does go out, she has a better chance of reaching her destination safely. That is particularly challenging this year with so much snow.

Her main visitors have become local dogs lured by her generous treats. Without their companionship, the isolation could have driven her mad long ago.

When asked why she hasn’t connected with her MLA Rylund Johnson, seniors advocates or the seniors society hoping for intervention, she asks why? She has taken all the required right steps, handed in paperwork and current documents from the doctor with updates in real time. She has gone to the housing providers in-person while using her walker and making it clear she’s in desperate need of better housing.

When questioned why a high-needs person such as this is not being quickly accommodated when it appears that people in better health gain easier quicker, Daryl Doylnny at AVENS said that while he cannot comment on individual cases, there are many seniors in desperate need of housing in Yellowknife. AVENS has 35 to 45 candidates who have applied for subsidized housing and more for units that rent for market rates.

A study last year identified the need for 538 more seniors units in Yellowknife. The new complex at AVENS expected to open later this year will provide 102 of those. He said that the decision over who is admitted is decided by a committee that is given circumstantial information but not names so there is no favouritism — instead, those with the highest needs are given highest priority.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that once accepted, candidates rarely move out, which makes it difficult for those on the waitlist to move in.

The scenario is similar at Northern United Place (NUP), another housing complex where Shaw applied two years ago. A source from NUP says people there can be on the waitlist for 1.5 years and the sheer volume of applicants coupled with low turnover makes it almost impossible for newcomers to gain entry. At least one person a day applies to NUP for units that rarely come up.

In the meantime, Shaw sits in her houseboat with some support from neighbours and friends, waiting for the day when she will have housing to meet her changed circumstances. With the desperate need for seniors housing here, that might not happen anytime soon.