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Sam Tsemberis Addresses Homelessness in Yellowknife, Canada

250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Yellowknife isn’t just a place, it’s an experience. It is a city of about 20,000 with many small surrounding rural and remote communities, some of which can only be reached by plane. Dayle, our gracious host, showed us the sights in her large new 4x4 Dodge Pickup Truck. We rode along, chatting away in the comfortable heated can. We visitors became very quiet when we started driving across the lake on the “ice-road” that she assured us was 8 feet thick this time of year.

The challenges of surviving homeless in a place where -40 F is part of everyday conversation, defies the imagination. Yellowknife is a close-knit community that believes in taking care of its own and doing things its own way.

More than 90% of the homeless population is aboriginal. In many of the native languages there is no word for homeless. In this culture so different from our own, it will require a non-western approach to address this western-made problem of homelessness.

Many of the aboriginal communities are governed by their local council. Decisions are often reached through consensus. With Housing First, it’s common to focus on getting individuals their own apartments and forget that Housing First is actually about consumer choice. This principle of choice puts the decision of how to proceed directly in the hands of the service user, and it is especially important here where self-governance and self-determination are central themes. Collective concerns seem to override individual preferences and here individual apartments may not be the housing option of choice.

The interesting challenge in this work is to explore the ways the principles of Housing First can be shaped in different ways in order to formulate a plan and develop a program to end homelessness for the specific community that wants it.

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