Advocates in Whitehorse push for camping bylaw amendment to ease city’s mounting housing crisis

Recent data shows out of 200 people experiencing homelessness in Whitehorse, 135 are Indigenous.

Advocates in Whitehorse are urging Whitehorse City Council to allow camping in designated areas in the city as the number of people without stable housing continues to skyrocket.

The Yukon Status of Women Council (YSWC), as well as several other signatories, sent a letter on June 2 to the city asking for a bylaw amendment to allow for camping in places such as a local arena, greenspaces and church parking lots.

“These are just really unprecedented times,” YSWC executive director Aja Mason told APTN News. “With COVID and now the opioid crisis that’s been recognized, we’ve seen a really rapid increase in how many homeless people or people who are identifying as homeless.

“It’s quite shocking how quickly it has increased.”

The letter calls on the city to allow for camping in centralized and scattered camping as a short-term, emergency solution to its growing housing crisis.

Mason says permitting camping in areas close to the city core would allow for supports such as the distribution of harm reduction materials like Naloxone and enabling people to have closer access to the food bank.

“It might not be an ideal situation, but it’s creating opportunities for centralized and coordinated camping and tenting. It means that we can at least organize and help to support people better,” she says.

‘Never been in a situation like this’

Recent data from the non-profit Safe at Home Society shows that 200 adults plus 60 children are experiencing homelessness according to its by-name list.

Mason says that number is double compared to last year.

“We’ve just never been in a situation like this, where we’ve seen the number of homeless people double in less than 12 months,” she says.

The data also shows 135 people on the list identified as Indigenous.

Eighty-seven people identified as women, of which sixty-two identified as Indigenous women.

Mason says the statistics regarding Indigenous people and homelessness are alarming.

“We have to keep in mind that 23 to 25 per cent of Yukon’s population identify as indigenous, whereas over 60 per cent of the folks who identify as homeless are Indigenous,” she says.

The letter states adding to the issue is that the number of homeless people is expected to rise due to “the recent wave of evictions from hotels/motels to accommodate tourists, which (is) adding strain to an already burdened housing system.”

One person at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter told APTN around 30 people had to leave one motel and are now living at the shelter.

One of those people, a woman who asked not to be identified, said the owners of the motel told long-term guests they had to leave by May 1.

She said she is now staying at the shelter for six months or until living arrangements can be found for her.

Natalie Taylor, executive director of Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle and one of the letter’s signatories, says there’s been a lack of action from decision-makers when it comes to people living in hotels and motels.

She notes these people often have to scramble every summer to find alternative accommodations, have trouble finding safe living environments and, in some cases, go back to live with abusive partners.

“I think for years, advocates have been trying to kind of break that cycle or that thinking that, like, ‘this is a normal pattern that we should be perpetuating (when it’s not),’” she says.

Up to city to find solutions

Mason says frontline NGOs her organization works with are being asked to provide tents and camping supplies, indicating camping may be a growing alternative for the city’s homeless population.

She says recent mudslides at the city’s clay cliffs have made camping there unsafe and the emergency shelter is not a good alternative for women in need of housing.

“There’s a lot of violence that happens in the shelter and it’s often a place that’s the last place people want to go to…It is a place that is certainly a space where a lot of violence occurs and in particular sexualized violence, there’s a lot of substance use that happens in that space,” she says.

Mason requested the bylaw amendment to city council on June 6.

APTN reached out to the City of Whitehorse but did not hear back, though officials say they’re looking into the issue and have identified potential sites for camping.

Mason says decision makers have made promises towards reconciliation and MMIWG2S+ issues and now is the time for action – something she’s still waiting to see.

“Quite frankly, I think that there’s some apathy around initiating some meaningful changes, changes that we know will be quite effective.”

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