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Program asks landlords to help fight homelessness

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo. Plans are underway to add daycare space at the Yellowknife Women's Society's main office on 47 Street. By the time renovations are complete, the Street Outreach Program, which operates out of the building, will move, meaning the society's adult and child programs will remain separate, according to executive director Bree Denning. April 23, 2019.

An aspiring tenant who’s experienced short-term homelessness can face a few barriers to accessing housing – arrears, a poor rental history and credit score.

The Next Step Rapid Rehousing program, introduced by the Yellowknife Women's Society recently, aims to address that. The society says it is a risk free method for landlords to offer housing to tenants who’ve experienced short-term or transitional homelessness.

The initiative is an expansion of the Housing First program run by the women's society and provides an opening for clients “to prove themselves as good tenants,” executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society Bree Denning said.

Bree Denning is the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society
Bree Denning is the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society

“People experiencing homelessness, many times, are extremely good tenants because they’re very happy to be in a home again,” she said.

To accommodate these tenants, the program aims to limit risk for the landlord: If there are damages or unpaid rents, the program covers the cost and absorbs the risk.

It also provides support to the clients for the first six to 12 months, ensuring they have what they need to be housed independently.

Only a few months-old, the program has serviced six individuals so far. It was originally designed to alleviate the Housing First wait list, which includes over 150 people, some of whom face years of waiting. If someone on the list is assessed as more vulnerable, they’ll receive priority.

“Not only are they probably never going to be accepted into the Housing First program, because there’s so many people ahead of them, (and) because the selection is based off vulnerability," Denning said of the many clients assessed as less vulnerable. "But they also, probably don’t need that level of support.”

While there are more than 150 on the organization’s wait list, a 2018 City of Yellowknife survey reported that there were about 338 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Of those, 95 per cent reported wanting permanent housing.

“There’s a massive number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife. And there are units available here and there,” Denning said. “The job is to address the barriers between those clients and those units.”

Costs can be significant. A $1,500 or $1,600 per-month apartment, for example, can often be unaffordable for a single working tenant, Denning said. In Yellowknife, the average rent is $1,613, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, which was developed by housing advocacy group BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

That database also reports that roughly 23 per cent of residents spend more than a third of their income on housing and eight per cent spend more than half. In 2018, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported that 2,500 Yellowknifers cannot affordably secure market rental housing.

For Housing First, it's difficult to service its entire wait list and as a result, some clients express frustration with the long delay.

“It’s fair criticism because it’s from people experiencing homelessness,” said Denning. “The criticism that we’ve received is that we’re not taking people fast enough, that they’ve been waiting on a wait list for years.”

To adjust, the organization is aiming to double its capacity, bringing the total to 40 clients, once Rapid Rehousing is fully functional. However, it’s slow going: intake can be time- consuming and the organization also has to find affordable units in a limited market.

“It’s really difficult and complex to get people the services they need. Housing is a start, but (someone) needs other services to stabilize,” said Denning. She explained that clients may face trauma as the result of the legacy of residential school and may be experiencing symptoms like mental health challenges and addictions.

“We’re trying, but the message isn’t to individuals experiencing homelessness. The message is to people who are deciding where funding goes and making resources available for these programs,” she said.

“That message is, there are a lot of people in need.”