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Day shelter funding tops wish list
MLAs lobby for shelter funding, more early childhood programs, health care in budget

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Keeping the doors open at Yellowknife's Dene Ko day shelter is high on the list of spending priorities for Yellowknife MLAs heading into this year's budget debate, which begins next week.

NNSL photo/graphic

Lydia Bardak, executive director of the John Howard Society, left, stands outside the Dene Ko day shelter on 52 Street with two of the day shelter's clients, identified as Jason and Hannah, on Monday. The future of the Yk day shelter remains up in the air as its GNWT funding is due to run out at the end of March. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

All four Yellowknife regular members stand united in their desire to see the territorial government continue contributing money to the downtown day shelter, which opened in 2009 with a three-year budget of $600,000, including $375,000 which came from the GNWT.

The shelter, run by the John Howard Society, is reaching the end of its current funding period on March 31. The City of Yellowknife has pledged $50,000 in its 2013 budget to keep the shelter open but only if the GNWT agrees to continue funding it.

The territorial government provided an additional $125,000 last year to keep the shelter going another year but has so far refused to commit to any permanent funding for the shelter, opened to give the city's downtrodden a place to stay warm and get a cup of coffee during the day.

Yellowknife MLAs are quick to point out that many people who use the shelter are from smaller communities outside of the city.

"It's a territorial shelter in the downtown of Yellowknife," said Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins on why GNWT money should be invested in the day shelter.

The shelter was visited 19,355 times by 280 individual clients in 2012, according to a report by the John Howard Society. Of those clients, 38 (13.6 per cent) identify Yellowknife as their hometown. The remaining 86 per cent of day shelter clients come to Yellowknife from other NWT communities. According to the most recent report, 11.4 per cent of clients hail from Behchoko, 8.9 per cent from Lutsel K'e and 7.1 per cent from Deline.

Hawkins has raised concerns in the past over the day shelter's current location, citing problems with open drinking, public fornication and other acts of mischief in the area around the shelter. However, with GNWT money the shelter, either in its present location or elsewhere, would be able to offer more than a warm, safe place for Yellowknife's street people. Staff would be able to provide programming to address client needs.

Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley would also like to see territorial funding for the shelter, although he remains unsure if there will be any money for it in the budget.

"It's obviously a territorial issue as well as a Yellowknife issue," Bromley said of homelessness in Yellowknife.

Priority two:

Health care, midwifery

Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger has promised to present a status quo budget during this latest session which begins next Wednesday, likely similar to the $1.4 billion in operational spending for 2012-13. This is part of a four-year financial strategy set by the 17th assembly to rein in spending for the first two years of this assembly's four-year term and increase spending over the next two fiscal years.

This strategy was created by the GNWT's financial management board and not all MLAs agree with it, said Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny, who counts himself among the skeptics.

Large infrastructure projects can be delayed by two years, but essential services cannot rely on the whim of cabinet, he said.

"We're not going to stop spending on health care for the next two years and then spend more money later to make up the ground. You can't do that, I'm sorry. These are things you have to continuously invest in," said Dolynny.

The GNWT spends less per capita than most Canadian jurisdictions on health care and the government should plan for this to change, said Dolynny.

While the Department of Health and Social Services has historically received the largest percentage of the operating budget of any department, the average Canadian government spends 42 cents of every tax dollar on health care, while last year, the NWT spent $350 million, roughly 25 per cent of its operating budget, on health care in 2012-13.

"We are under-spending as a percentage of our budget," said Dolynny, adding that around one third of health-care funding in the territory is spent on medical travel. "We spend a large chunk of our money just on transportation to get from A to B to get health-care programs."

Both Bromley and Hawkins said that they hope to see funding to expand territorial midwifery services in this budget. Since midwifery services in Yellowknife were "temporarily suspended" by the Department of Health and Social Services, there have been two public petitions filed with the territorial government: one in February 2011 with 304 signatures; and another e-petition closed this past Monday that gathered 148 names.

"The government keeps flirting with the program and it's got to get into the business of what people want," said Hawkins of establishing midwifery services in NWT communities, including Yellowknife.

"It's a valuable service, it's one that families cherish ... Many people want to see it expanded."

Priority three:

Funding for schools

One thing taxpayers can expect to see included in the next budget is an increase in funding for early childhood education programming, said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro.

This government has made education and social support for families with children ages zero to three a priority. Bisaro is happy this area is getting attention, especially since the number of kindergartners who go to school unprepared can be alarmingly high in the territory.

"Right now, kids get to school and some of them are already five years behind because they've had no encouragement at home; they don't know what a book is, all that stuff.," said Bisaro.

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