Canada’s Emergency Shelters Are Failing

Four deaths at a Whitehorse facility underscore the need for housing reform

A photo of the front of 405 Alexander Street.
(The Walrus)

One January night in 2022, Myranda Tizya-Charlie and Cassandra Warville entered a shower room at Whitehorse’s emergency shelter. They were discovered, unresponsive, by staff nearly four hours later. Despite medical intervention, both women died. The next year, in the same shelter, Josephine Hager also died. Two months later, in April 2023, it was Darla Skookum.

Last spring, a coroner’s inquest investigated the deaths of the four First Nations women. Drugs and alcohol had played a role, but the ultimate causes were far more complicated. According to the CBC, a former supervisor testified that the shelter was chaotic and understaffed the night Tizya-Charlie and Warville died. At the time, there was no policy or standard practice around regular checks of bathrooms and showers. As for the 2023 deaths, there were no directives mandating bed checks or specifying when staff should call an ambulance if a guest was unwell. Employees testified that it was common practice to put intoxicated people into a wheelchair and then into bed rather than calling for help.

These four deaths were tragedies. The Whitehorse Emergency Shelter—also known by its address, 405 Alexander—is a vital service, acting as a lifeline for the city’s most vulnerable. The shelter is low barrier, with an emphasis on harm reduction, which means that while substance use isn’t allowed on site, intoxicated people aren’t turned away. It also means that staff can be preoccupied with simply keeping people alive. Since October 2022, employees have reversed sixty-seven overdoses using naloxone. And despite their best efforts, sometimes people die.

The testimony at the inquest painted a picture of an overwhelmed facility. In addition to providing meals, showers, and fifty-four beds, 405 Alexander offers services and supports for guests who want more than a place to sleep: First Nations cultural programming, like smudging and access to Elders; harm-reduction supplies; health care; and counselling. The shelter also houses twenty people in permanent units.

This is unconventional—typically, emergency shelters and permanent homes are not located under the same roof. When the building first opened, these units were transitional, designed to be a stepping stone to permanent housing. But with the city’s lack of housing, residents moved into these units for the long term.

Whitehorse needs more options for Yukoners experiencing homelessness. You’d think it would be easier to tackle the issue in a small city. With our population of roughly 36,000, 226 people are on the By Name List, a metric social service agencies use to calculate the unhoused population. That’s not an impossible number of homes to build. But the same barriers to solving homelessness exist here as they do elsewhere in Canada: a lack of political will, slow-moving bureaucracy, and NIMBYism.

Advocates have been sounding the alarm on the Yukon’s housing crisis for years, yet the wait list for social housing continues to grow. People who live and work near the shelter have complained about drug use, fighting, and vandalism in the neighbourhood. Some complaints have suggested the shelter should return to being “dry,” as it was between 2017 and 2019. That would mean turning away people who are intoxicated, essentially punishing anyone with addictions by cutting them off from services.

Homelessness in the Yukon has many of the same contributing factors as it does down south, chief among them being poverty, substance use, and mental health issues. Up here, though, the impact of residential schools is much more thickly woven through that fabric. About 25 percent of the Yukon’s population is Indigenous, and most of the people using Whitehorse’s shelter are First Nations.

Because of our climate and location, homelessness also looks different here. Whitehorse streets don’t have encampments—people would literally freeze to death in the winter. In the summer, some unhoused people opt to camp out of sight in the forest framing the edges of the downtown core.

“The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016” report estimated that 35,000 people are homeless on any given night, while at least 235,000 experience homelessness in a year.
The roots of the crisis can be traced back to the early 1990s, when the federal government ended its co-operative housing program and froze spending on social housing, largely transferring responsibility to the provinces instead. We’re still digging our way out of the deficit created by these decisions.

Shelters have always been intended for short-term, emergency stays until people can be moved into permanent housing. But now, due to a lack of other options, many Canadians live in shelters for months. These buildings have become de facto housing. Constructing more of them isn’t the answer—they’re not suitable long-term homes for people. Some housing advocates, though, say we need more shelters now, as a temporary fix, to get people off the street while we wait for more permanent housing to be built.

That’s the real solution: affordable, permanent homes. For people who have complex needs, supports and services should be a component of that housing. Whitehorse already has some such projects. The not-for-profit Options for Independence runs a staffed, supportive home for adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The Steve Cardiff Tiny Home Community consists of five affordable, transitional homes, whose residents are assisted by Blood Ties Four Directions Centre. And the Housing First residence, operated by Connective and the Council of Yukon First Nations, has sixteen units with 24/7 staffing and support.

And yet more is needed. When housing is tailored to people’s distinct needs, they’re better set up to thrive. For instance, there’s been talk here in Whitehorse of a sober shelter for unhoused people who are trying to overcome addiction. As is, the only option for most folks is 405 Alexander, and it’s challenging to strive for sobriety in an environment where many of the people around you are under the influence.

One project that will help make a difference is called the Hearth, a former hotel that’s being converted into a sixty-seven-unit supportive residence for adults and children downtown. Local nonprofit Safe at Home Society is behind the initiative, which is set to open in 2026. Residents will be selected off the By Name List.

Initiatives like this are hard to pull off. Safe at Home coordinated the purchase of the hotel from its previous owner, received territorial and federal funding, applied for loans, and faced criticism from the official opposition in the Yukon legislature over the cost of the renovation. The nonprofit will also have to ensure the building is staffed by skilled, trained people who can properly support residents.

“This is not the silver bullet,” Kate Mechan, Safe at Home’s executive director, said in an interview with CBC Yukon in March. Building infrastructure takes time, and it’s hard to get ahead when the list of people experiencing homelessness in Whitehorse keeps growing. While we wait for the housing supply to catch up, 405 Alexander will continue to shoulder a heavy load.

With thanks to the Gordon Foundation for supporting the work of writers from Canada’s North.

Rhiannon Russell
Rhiannon Russell (@rhrussell) is a freelance journalist based in Whitehorse, Yukon.