July 19, 2024
For people who have complex needs, supports and services should be a component of that housing.

Canada’s Emergency Shelters Are Failing

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

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.

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