The issue: our most vulnerable
We say: Brava, YWCA

The Covid-19 pandemic bears few silver linings.

One of them would be that the initially rejected Arnica Inn homelessness project is now advancing because of the heightened health risks faced by those living on the streets.

This proposal, brought forward by the Yellowknife Women’s Society, had great merit from the start. It would convert the 42-room motel into transitional housing for the less fortunate.

The idea, which was pitched to Yellowknife city council in May 2019, is to provide support, structure and supervision to homeless individuals to aid them in finding permanent housing.

Women’s society board member Monique Robitaille underscored the depth of the problem, telling council last year that 338 people had been identified as homeless in Yellowknife and 160 of them had registered for the Housing First Program.

City council voted unanimously to grant the society a conditional permit for the transitional housing project on May 27.

The women’s society subsequently applied to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) for $2.5 million in funding – it would later rise to $4 million – and turned to the territorial government for the remaining $600,000.

Cue the agonizing mishandling.

Word came in late February that the CMHC declined to provide funds, citing concerns from the territorial government.

Mayor Rebecca Alty expressed the frustration that many Yellowknifers felt: “I’m shocked and dismayed by the news,” Alty stated. “It was a local not-for-profit who was taking the lead to get these 42 transitional housing units on the market quickly, and the GNWT wasn’t supportive. I can’t wrap my head around it.”

Finger pointing between the CMHC and the GNWT ensued. If not doomed, the transitional housing plan appeared to be delayed indefinitely.

Along came the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19. All of a sudden, some of society’s most vulnerable people – the homeless – are at greater risk of catching the virus and, being in no position to self-isolate, are also more likely to infect others. Something had to be done, and it was. Finally.

The NWT Housing Corporation and the CMHC came to their senses and got behind the housing transition project at the Arnica Inn.

TC Group of Companies, owners of the motel, have generously deferred payment on the property for a year.

The Yellowknife Women’s Society and city council were, of course, on the right track all along.

Ultimately, $4.65 million is a small price to pay for this initiative.

The CMHC still wants to inspect the motel, and there has been talk of renovations possibly being needed. Those fixes can come in time. Yellowknife, like all urban centres, should be making optimal use of its empty buildings. Five-star accommodations aren’t required to give a big hand up to those who are trying to better their lives.

It shouldn’t have taken a health crisis to get movement on this worthy transitional housing project. While we’re grateful things are proceeding, the territorial and federal governments must be most careful never to repeat the mistakes they made over the past year. The people directly hurt by the bungling are already suffering enough.

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