Cold place to live outside

December 9, 2013
Stephanie Harrington
Humanitarian Studies Associate Prof. Michael Young

Being homeless in the Arctic is tough so Inuvik resident Bobby Gene Ross does what he can to get by.

Ross sometimes sleeps under buildings during warmer months. If he’s sober, he might squeeze into the town’s overcrowded ‘dry’ homeless shelter for a night’s rest. Others who are homeless in the remote town of 3,400 people couch surf at family or friends’ homes.

Royal Roads Associate Prof. Michael Young travelled to Inuvik over the past three years to conduct one of Canada’s first in-depth studies into the causes of homelessness in the Arctic, as well as identify gaps in services and possible solutions. He interviewed homeless people such as Ross, health and social service groups, and police. What Young found was alarming.

“In the winter, -35 C is a common temperature. Many times those who are homeless will do something to get arrested so they can be locked up for a night so it’s warm,” says Young, from RRU’s School of Humanitarian Studies.


In one year, the RCMP’s lockup served as a de facto shelter 2,500 times, Young’s research found. Substance abuse, mental health issues and poverty are common among the homeless, most of whom are aboriginal.

“Homelessness is often thought of as an urban problem, but visible homelessness in the Northwest Territories emerged as a problem in the early 1990s,” Young says.

“In Inuvik and other communities in the Beaufort Delta, there is a complete lack of investment in community services, and because of the geography and climate the consequences of this are far more drastic.”

Yellowknife, in comparison, offers daytime shelter to the homeless, and has substance abuse treatment centres. Inuvik’s shelter opens at night and people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are refused entry. The closest detoxification centre is 1,200 kilometres away in Whitehorse.

Young says there now is a push for the town’s homeless shelter to be opened 24 hours. Other recommendations he has made to government include establishing transitional housing that accepts those with substance abuse issues, more affordable housing and a detoxification centre.

“Given its isolation, one of the problems for the North is it’s often ignored for social problems,” Young says. “Rural locations across the country suffer from that invisibility problem.”