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City needs halfway house: judge
Man withdraws from court program because suitable housing could not be found

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Friday, June 26, 2015

A man who was admitted to wellness court had to withdraw from the program because of a lack of suitable housing for him.

NNSL photo/graphic

Bailey House in Yellowknife is used as transitional housing for men. It is also used by men currently in the wellness court program but there is not always room for those people at the facility. A judge has called for a halfway house in Yellowknife. - NNSL file photo

Wellness court started in Yellowknife last year and offers an opportunity for relatively-low-risk offenders to serve their sentences outside jail and receive counselling.

Currently, men in the program who don't have a permanent residence are being admitted to Bailey House, but that facility has a limited number of beds and it also provides transitional housing to men who are not in the wellness court program.

The housing shortage has caught the attention of at least one judge who commented on the situation in wellness court.

According to court transcripts, territorial court Judge Robert Gorin was dealing with Thomas Avery, 33, who eventually left the program because he could not obtain suitable housing and said this: "In Whitehorse there exists a resource called the Adult Resource Centre and it acts as a halfway house for people who have received territorial time and are being integrated back into the community. It also acts as a place where people who are on remand (out on bail) can be housed. So people will often be released where they wouldn't be released if such a resource did not exist. Hopefully one day something like that can be built in Yellowknife as well."

In sentencing Avery yesterday, Gorin noted his inability to obtain housing put him in a "catch 22" situation.

"Bailey House could not accept him because he was at the (North Slave Correctional Centre) on remand and did not have a firm release date," Gorin pointed out. They also could not accept him until he was seen by an occupational therapist, something that appears did not happen because he was being held in custody, Gorin said.

He sentenced Avery to a further two months in jail, taking into account the approximately four months he served in pre-trial custody. Avery pleaded guilty to four theft-related offences in Fort Smith last February and a breach of a court order by drinking and missing curfew in Yellowknife in April.

Court heard that Avery suffered a serious brain injury in 2007 and that he became a father for the second time a month ago - his partner giving birth while he was in jail.

Lawyer Tony Amoud represents the majority of people going through wellness court. He said the Crown, when deciding whether someone should be admitted to wellness court, has to take into account their housing situation.

"Wellness court typically has individuals who have chronic addiction and or mental-health issues. Because they often have criminal backgrounds, they would not be releasable on bail."

Prosecutors would be more inclined to release someone in wellness court on bail if there was a facility like a halfway house for them to live at, Amoud said.

"Technically, the Salvation Army is there and if it was the right file I could see the Crown agreeing to let the person stay at that shelter," Amoud said. "But the whole idea of wellness court is to get these people back on their feet so part of their actual program is to find stable living. So it would be counter-productive to have individuals living in a shelter when the whole idea is to get them in their own apartment or housing."

This is just the growing pains of wellness court and not having enough housing for people in the program is not unique to Yellowknife, Amoud said. He pointed out that now that the youth transitional home Hopes Haven is open downtown, people in wellness court between the ages of 18 and 24 could conceivably stay there.

"Wellness court is working, it's just sad that we are seeing some people fall through the cracks," said Amoud.

Wellness court began in the city last October and Department of Justice officials said it was modeled on a successful one in the Yukon but as Judge Gorin pointed out, the idea of a halfway house for offenders admitted to the program was not part of the plan.

Indeed, Sue Glowach, senior communications advisor for the justice department, said the program will need to grow and evolve as officials learn how best to set this specialized court in place to meet NWT needs.

"Housing would certainly be one aspect that will be examined to ensure we are meeting people's needs," she stated in an e-mail.

"At this point the court program is in early days," stated Glowach.

A little more than a year ago, the federal government was reported to be on the cusp of awarding the Salvation Army a $300,000 contract to house federal offenders from the North who were reintegrating back into the community. However, no one from the Salvation Army or Corrections Canada was able to confirm whether that funding actually came through.

The justice department was not able to provide the exact number of people who have been admitted to wellness court since it began, but says there are five in it right now.

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