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Housing First intake tool criticized
Advocates concerned some people may be overlooked

Shane Magee
Northern News Services
Friday, February 3, 2017

Flaws have emerged with a screening tool used to determine who gets placed in the city's Housing First program.

Ten placed in Housing First

Ten people have been placed in apartments through the city's Housing First program, reaching the midway point of its goal.

The ninth and tenth people were placed in January, according to Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, which is contracted to run the program by the city.

The society was awarded the contract to run the city's Housing First program last year and the first person was placed in housing in October. The program, funded by the federal government until March 2019, has a goal of housing 20 chronically homeless people. It has a staff of four.

"We're ahead of the schedule that I had anticipated," Denning said, adding they're going to pause intakes for a short while to review policies and procedures.

The program has been working with Northview REIT to house people in apartments in its buildings scattered throughout the city.

"The landlord has been fantastic so far," she said, adding complaints have been addressed as they arise.

Those who have been placed in housing have remained in the program, she said.

In November, there were four women and four men participating in the program, all of them indigenous.

Housing First aims to reduce homelessness by putting people first into housing, then providing support services for things like addictions and mental health.

People considered for placement are screened with a vulnerability assessment tool where they must self-disclose aspects of their health and housing history. The system rates people on factors such as risk of death and diagnosed health issues. Because of that, it tends to favour older people and those who can accurately describe their own conditions.

The Yellowknife Women's Society, contracted by the city to administer Housing First, has noticed issues.

"We are noticing that there are some shortcomings in terms of youth," said Bree Denning, executive director of the society, on Tuesday.

"Younger individuals might have the same problems (as older people) that will lead to (health conditions) down the line, but they haven't lived long enough to have those conditions show up."

The issue arose Monday during a Community Advisory Board on Homelessness meeting when a request for funding to train more people to administer the screening tool was considered.

The city committee oversees the city's homelessness initiatives, including Housing First.

"My youth have not lived long enough to be chronically homeless," said Iris Hamlyn, executive director of SideDoor Youth Ministries, at the meeting.

She said she doesn't bring forward potential youth candidates because of the screening tool.

SideDoor runs a 12-bed emergency youth shelter, transitional housing at Hope's Haven and day programs at its resource centre. It recently began its own Housing First program, with its participants selected with a vulnerably assessment tool.

The screening tool is a standard one used elsewhere in the country and is supposed to objectively rank who is most in need of being admitted to Housing First. It was selected by the city's advisory board about a year ago based on the strong recommendation by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, according to Coun. Linda Bussey.

"It's a good tool - it just needs to be refined," she said.

The results are considered by a Housing First intake committee that includes representatives of city shelters as well as Lydia Bardak. The committee also considers a person's criminal history and safety issues.

Dayle Hernblad, the city's homelessness co-ordinator, said a recent intake committee meeting was considering two candidates.

"It was only through the community knowledge that one person was absolutely elevated in need and risk because of that un-diagnosis - or no diagnosis - of developmental or health. A lot of them can't share that information," she said.

Denning said the committee isn't supposed to rely on personal knowledge of those being considered but instead use the screening tool results to objectively decide who to take on.

The screening tool is being revised, Hernblad said, to better reflect youth and families facing homelessness, though it wasn't clear if that would address the issues raised at the meeting.

Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council which runs the Safe Harbour Day Shelter on 49 Street, also raised concerns. In an interview, she said some people are "so far off the grid" they aren't diagnosed with issues and may not be able to articulate what problems they face during the screening.

Within the people who attend the shelter, there are some who haven't been considered who could be considered chronically homeless, McKee said.

"We know we have chronic people that we believe would be identified as probably the most chronic for Housing First and they're not placed. I can't make a comment on people that have been. I don't know who their identities are so can't make a comparison," she said.

McKee said decisions made based on the screening tool could result in a backlash if residents continue to see the same people on city streets because they're not included in the very program meant to help them.

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