‘This challenge needs to be faced by the region as a whole’


A new book is encouraging policymakers to better consider the realities of housing in the North and the strengths of northern communities.

Housing, Homelessness and Social Policy in the Urban North is edited by Julia Christensen, Sally Carraher, Travis Hedwig and Steven Arnfjord. It explores factors contributing to housing insecurity and homelessness in urban centres across the Canadian North, Alaska and Greenland.

Two chapters focus on Yellowknife and topics such as barriers to affordable housing, public and private housing monopolies, and efforts to address homelessness in the territorial capital.

Overall, the book argues that effective policies need to be contextually and culturally rooted. It highlights the importance of social networks and the non-profit sector, which is “doing so much, often with so little.”

“Rather than turn to the south for ideas on social policy and programming, we need to turn to northerners for ideas on how to respond effectively to the factors that contribute to homelessness in the urban North,” the book states.



Editor Christensen, an associate professor of geography and planning at Queen’s University, was born and raised in Yellowknife. She attended a book launch at Yellowknife Books last month, with donations going to the Yellowknife Women’s Society.

Cabin Radio spoke with Christensen about the book and what she hopes to see from policymakers to address housing challenges in the North.

This interview was recorded on May 14, 2024. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Emily Blake: I’m curious how this book came about.



Julia Christensen: It came about following a workshop that we held in Yellowknife in the spring of 2018. At the time, I had a Canada Research Chair in northern governance and public policy, and that chair came with some funds to be able to hold public events. And so we gathered a number of researchers that were working in the areas of housing in the urban North – so in major centres in Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland – and then also invited community organizations from the Yellowknife area to engage with the researchers who were presenting on topics from their respective regions.

Housing, Homelessness and Social Policy in the Urban North examines housing insecurity and related policies in cities across the Canadian North, Alaska and Greenland. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

So the focus – or the idea to really look at the urban North – came from previous research that I had done on homelessness in the Northwest Territories.

Through that work, I started to really see the important role that urban centres, or urbanizing centres like Yellowknife and Inuvik, played as sites for support for people experiencing homelessness, emergency shelter, housing. They are the hubs for healthcare, social services, the criminal justice system, other institutions that people who are unhoused are coming into contact with on a regular basis.

Who is the intended audience of the book?

The intended audience of the book is northern policymakers working in the areas of housing and social support provision in the North, people that are involved with community-based housing organizations in the urban North.

But also researchers, people working in collaboration and partnership with northern communities and organizations to better address supports and housing options for unhoused northerners in these three regions.

Why is this work important for you?

There’s a rising number of people from the North who are unhoused. There’s a rising issue around “homelessness.” And the reality is that, across these three regions, Indigenous northerners are disproportionately represented in those people who are experiencing a lack of housing.



I say homelessness in quotes because these are people who, by and large, are without shelter on their own homelands. And so connecting the contemporary issue of homelessness with the ongoing effects of colonialism and colonial social policy is something that’s very important to me. I feel that it’s very much a social justice, human rights, treaty rights issue, and so that’s part of it.

The second is I think when we look at housing issues and support services for the unhoused in the North, we typically take programs and solutions and strategies that have been developed in the south and apply them in the North, without really any regard for northern context and for the strengths of diverse northern cultures.

So programs like Housing First and transitional housing, those programs are applied in northern communities without really looking at: Does the local housing landscape support this initiative? Are there adequate wraparound supports available to people in communities?

What I see is the relationships between smaller communities and urban northern centres are very, very important, very critical in being able to adapt programs so that they better suit northern context.

So there’s a need to… rather than look at homelessness in Yellowknife as being contained within that city, to instead look at: Where are people coming from? What are they coming to Yellowknife for? What is lacking in home communities? How can we look at integrating support, integrating the work of different agencies between communities so that we’re looking at the phenomenon of homelessness more from a regional perspective?

There’s a lot of conflict that arises between communities and this idea that, “Well, these are our issues,” or, “These are your issues, these aren’t ours.” In reality, I think we need to be looking at it far more holistically as a challenge that needs to be faced by the territory as a whole, by the region as a whole.

The book talks about connections between urbanization and housing insecurity. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

There are different examples across the three contexts. Of course, there are significant differences between Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland with respect to Indigenous land rights, the history of colonialism, history of settlements and housing. But there are also some really similar threads. One of those is the rising importance of urban centres across these three regions.



When we look at northern Canada in particular and the emphasis on resource extraction, that creates an accumulation of capital and resources, employment services in centres like Yellowknife and Whitehorse and Iqaluit. These are also, of course, the centres for northern administration, northern governance.

When you see services provided or concentrated in urban centres, services that are not provided in smaller communities, there’s a natural kind-of pull toward the urban centres. There’s greater housing diversity in places like Yellowknife, there’s emergency shelter housing, where in the vast majority of other communities in the territory, there is no emergency shelter housing. The cost of living is much, much higher in smaller communities than it is in Yellowknife. So there are a number of different subtle or passive approaches to urbanization, or factors that contribute to urbanization, in northern Canada.

The day shelter in Yellowknife. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

In places like Greenland, urbanization has been much more of a clear policy issue. You have smaller communities that have been actually shuttered, closed down with increased investment in housing in the main urban centres like in the capital, Nuuk. The problem there is there’s such a significant housing crisis that housing, even public housing, is only available to people who have an apartment assigned to them through their employment or through their status as a student. There’s very little in the way of public housing for unemployed people who are low-income. So urbanization is being actively promoted there, but the housing infrastructure isn’t there in order to ensure the integration and success of all the people that are moving to the city.

So there are these overt and covert strategies related to urbanization that we see across the three regions.

Why would you say it’s important to look at and compare these three regions?

So many people who are working in the areas of housing provision and support provision for unhoused northerners are totally overburdened. These are people that typically wear multiple hats. They don’t have a lot of time and space and resources to be able to look at what is being implemented in similar settings elsewhere.

Not just across the circumpolar North but also within northern Canada, there are many, many examples of really innovative strategies and approaches that different communities have tried, where there’s a benefit in being able to share those experiences with other similar communities. When you look across Alaska and northern Canada and Greenland, there are also very different relationships between the social welfare state and the provision of housing, different collaborations that exist between private and public housing.

This is really a way to promote knowledge-sharing, to learn about different strategies that are being employed elsewhere. Also to think about how, across these three regions, there are common challenges with respect to how homelessness is understood.



The model for understanding homelessness comes from the southern United States in the case of Alaska, southern Canada for northern Canada, and Denmark with respect to Greenland. These are all definitions that inform policy and these definitions aren’t coming from the North, so they’re not reflecting the realities of how homelessness manifests itself in the North.

But also, what are the housing types that are even available? In northern communities, they’re often not nearly as diverse as they are in southern locales. There are a variety of different advocacy, knowledge-sharing and policy-informing objectives behind putting this book together.

What are you hoping to see from policymakers?

What I would love to see from policymakers going forward is an effort to implement definitions that address the specific context of homelessness and housing insecurities in their respective regions.

I would like to see programs supported that are adaptable for the northern context and that also recognize the North not as a place of deficit, but as a place of strength. There are incredible community-led housing initiatives, so much innovation at the community level, so much knowledge around what the housing and support needs really are. Time and again, we don’t see that community knowledge and expertise really informing policy and strategy around northern housing and homelessness.

So looking to a program like Housing First. Thinking about: How could a program like this be applied in a small settlement community where they might not have the wraparound supports that are available where the program was developed, in New York City many years ago, but where there are other culturally significant forms of support that could be better supported? And where also there might be a need for greater collaboration, say, between services that are available in Yellowknife or even Edmonton to provide the necessary continuum of care for a person who might be in acute housing need, who would be moved into a Housing First unit.

Thinking creatively about how to provide the core of that program, which is to provide housing before anything else without strings attached. So how could that program, the philosophy, be applied in a place like Fort Good Hope but building on the strength of local culture, and then also the strengths of collaboration, relationships with other communities in the territory and elsewhere? That’s one of the outcomes that I would really like to see.

Row houses in Inuvik. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

I would love to see more of a recognition that when it comes to contemporary housing insecurity and the consequences of contemporary housing insecurity, those are really connected to chronic, persistent housing need across the region. Homelessness itself is not a phenomenon that exists on an island, solely in places like Yellowknife and Inuvik. It’s very, very much connected to the dynamics of chronic housing needs in smaller communities.



So the solution really needs to be a territory-wide one and one that looks at supporting relationships between communities, rather than looking at it as being a very siloed issue where Yellowknife is dealing with the more visible forms of homelessness and then smaller communities are supposed to be somehow preventing the rural-urban migration of their community members who don’t have housing at home. There’s too much of a kind of community divide that’s exacerbated, I think, in political discourse, that isn’t helpful to addressing the real issues.

I know the book hasn’t been on shelves very long, but what has the response been so far and has there been any response from policymakers in particular?

There has been response from policymakers. I’m very fortunate to have great relationships with Housing NWT and also with the housing minister, people that are in positions to really be able to implement change.

There’s a real desire there to learn from research that’s taking place in their jurisdiction. We also held a knowledge gathering last week in Yellowknife and had attendees there from Nunavut who are very interested in exploring those parallels, recognizing, too the shared history that Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have and how that continues to be shared in terms of supports that are provided in Yellowknife to Nunavummiut in the Kitikmeot region in particular. There are a lot of connections there and a desire to really learn and support one another in coming up with a definition of homelessness, but also an understanding of what the northern housing continuum really is. What are the housing types that are available in the North? What are the housing types that are missing, and how does that then affect the adaptability of some of these southern approaches in northern communities? So there’s a lot around advocacy and then also policy development that I see happening.

I’m not entirely sure what kind of impact the book has had in Alaska and Greenland. I’d have to ask my colleagues about that. I know there were a lot of folks from Housing NWT in attendance at the book launch at Yellowknife Books a couple of weeks ago. We just have ongoing conversations with them about how to move on some of the findings from this material.

Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

I suppose one thing that maybe we missed is really the role of the non-profit sector in supporting people who are unhoused across these urban contexts – be it in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland – and the various ways in which the non-profit sector is and is not supported across these contexts.

So we see again in a place like Yellowknife – and of course it’s the place I know about, where I was born and raised – you have a very engaged non-profit sector.



The history of emergency shelter and transitional supportive housing provision in Yellowknife has been one that has been guided by the non-profit sector: the Yellowknife Women’s Society, the YWCA, Salvation Army. They’ve really been on the ground providing much-needed support and they’re very reliant on public funding for those supports.

However, public funding is not consistent. It’s not provided in five-year, 10-year chunks. It’s very much on an annual basis, there’s no guaranteed funding. And so that creates a lot of stress on an already under-resourced non-profit sector. They have to use a lot of their resources toward going after grants, going after funding, reporting on that funding, and it really impedes the sustainability of the kinds of programming that they are trying to provide.

What we see across the board is sustainability of programming is absolutely critical to really being able to get at the heart of what’s driving housing insecurity in the North. To not be able to plan ahead and think about, “How are we going to grow this program because we know we’re going to have this funding year to year?” is a real impediment to the kind of effective implementation of really creative programs.

Another part of that is really the role of relationships. You have people who, again, are very overburdened, working really hard to provide these programs. And sometimes there are really productive relationships between agencies and with government, and sometimes those relationships suffer. Kind-of looking at ways to really support, again, the sustainability of productive working relationships between agencies, between the non-profit sector and government, is something that also, I think, merits a lot of attention. And that would be an area that I’d love to see policymakers engage more in.