Email this articleE-mail this story  Discuss this articleWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad  Print this page

'Stressed shelters' drive homeless into tents

Jessica Klinkenberg
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 24/06) - Help can't come soon enough for Donald Berens.

A self-confessed alcoholic, Berens says he has been homeless since 1994, and most recently lived in a makeshift shelter behind the Legislative Assembly.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Donald Berens used to live in the bush behind the Legislative Assembly before moving. Here he shows the number of pills he says he takes on for depression, pain and asthma. - Jessica Klinkenberg/NNSL photo

"I need some encouragement, I need some assistance," he said. "I don't know what to do any more. I'm very confused."

Making matters worse, Berens is not able to sleep at the Salvation Army shelter.

"I can't get into (the Salvation Army) because I assaulted someone who was sexually assaulting me."

In and out of jail over the years for offences that range from assault to theft, Berens said he's even tried addictions counselling to get back on his feet.

"It didn't penetrate. The fact of the matter is that it's not intense enough."

Brendan Bell, minister responsible for homelessness, admits that having a tent almost within sight of the Legislative Assembly is "very difficult and heartwrenching."

The government has put some money aside to help people who come North with the promise of work, to return home again if the job falls through.

As well, he said the government is looking at putting money into the next territorial budget to address the problem of homelessness.

According to a 2005 GNWT report titled "Homelessness in the NWT: Recommendations to improve the GNWT response," Yellowknife's Salvation Army shelter houses a average of 45 men on any given night of the year, and the Centre for Northern Families reports sheltering an average of 25-30 women per night.

Since 1999, the number of people using emergency shelters in Yellowknife has tripled.

That crunch has forced some people to live in tents, said Lydia Bardak, chair of Yellowknife's homelessness coalition and who is also a city councillor. Even so, she said more shelters aren't necessarily the best solution.

"The reality of those folks is that putting a roof over their heads doesn't make them not homeless," she said.

Which is why Bardak said the coalition is pushing for transitional homes like Bailey House.

Bailey House, slated to be built where the old fire hall stands now on Franklin Avenue near the Salvation Army, will have 29 suites housing 30-36 male graduates of Salvation Army programs or addictions treatment centres.

Each person would pay a small amount of rent.

Bardak said it is difficult for homeless singles to get public housing because families take priority.

"The biggest supply of homelessness is from North Slave Correction Centre," she said. "The concern of some inmates is where they're going to live."

Though some tent dwellers may enjoy "a certain amount of freedom," said Bardak, "It's not as pleasant in the winter, and living in a tent does require a lot of energy - a lot of energy is put into survival."

That makes it harder for people to get back on track and find jobs, she said.

Mayor Gord Van Tighem said it's difficult to tell whether homelessness rates are going up or not.

"At this time of year, it would appear that it's going up," Van Tighem said, adding that might be because more people are using the shelters due to the cold weather.

"The shelters are stressed," he said.

Unknown to homelessness workers are the number of people who "couch-surf" in others' homes, or those, like Berens, who live in tents.

"I just don't know how long it's going to last," said Berens, who's left the tent in favour of squatting in a shed near downtown.