Funding concerns puts Fort McMurray supportive housing program at risk

Supporters of the Tawaw program warn the end of the program will leave clients with the options of “jail, the streets, the hospital or death.”

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The work of Tawâw, a permanent supportive housing program focusing on chronically homeless Indigenous people, could unravel within the next six months if funding is not secured.

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Councillor Chris Beausoleil of Fort McMurray 468 First Nation warns if that happens, the options left for the clients are “jail, the streets, the hospital or death.”

Jo-Anne Packham of the Wood Buffalo Wellness Society (WBWS), which oversees Tawâw, says a funding agreement with the municipality can no longer be honoured following changes to the Community Investment Program. The municipality says it cannot legally fulfill the requests made by Tawâw.

“There’s double the amount of homelessness on our official list. The reason why we’re not seeing encampments everywhere is that we’re open,” said Packham in a Wednesday interview.

“We didn’t create homelessness, this is a community problem. We are the service provider that’s coming in to try our best to address it and solve it for us.”

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Packham says WBWS had an informal agreement the municipality would cover half the costs of construction and renovations. The deal was not in writing, she said. The municipality already gave more than $4.3 million last January to help secure the former Bridgeport Inn in downtown Fort McMurray.

WBWS hoped to get another $3.4 million from the province and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to complete work on the project. Packham said changes council made to the CIP program is blocking WBWS from getting that funding. WBWS cannot get more provincial funding because the Alberta government considers Tawâw financially unsustainable.

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Jo-Anne Packham, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Wellness Society, and Dennis Fraser, the RMWB’s Indigenous relations director, in a youth room at Tawaw, a supportive living centre for chronic homelessness in downtown Fort McMurray, on June 5, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Tawâw costs roughly $30,000 every month to keep the doors open. WBWS asked the RMWB to amend their municipal grant to pay off the property’s mortgage debt. A municipal spokesperson says the RMWB’s governing policy does not allow funds to go towards debt retirement. Until funding can be secured, further construction of the Tawâw project is on-hold.

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“This ripple effect of what’s going to happen in six months will all come back to the mayor and council when there is nothing left here,” said Najwa Karamujic, with the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation.

“We met with the city weekly for over two years to discuss every aspect of this project,” said Packham. “This change to the CIP program is a complete deviation from the plan and agreement.”

Tawâw’s services growing in Fort McMurray

Demand for a service like Tawâw has been growing in Fort McMurray. The dream is to have 32 beds. There are 127 people on a waiting list for housing, 25 people waiting for Tawâw and an additional 20 waiting on a list to apply.

Before Tawâw, WBWS paid about $20,000 every month to keep people at downtown hotels. Other housing agencies also did the same. But hotel rooms a poor substitute. Rooms were damaged, there were fights and one person was killed.

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Despite the funding crisis, the program has been running since late December. There are 14 people living at the Indigenous-led housing facility. The centre is based on similar housing programs operated by Niginan Housing Ventures in Edmonton.

The program focuses on people who are chronically homeless. Many of them have been kicked out of other shelters and treatment programs.

Nearly all of Tawâw’s clients come suffer from addictions, psychosis, mental and emotional health issues. Some clients lived in an encampment that was cleared by the RMWB last summer. Packham says they call themselves “tent city OGs.”

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A medical room at Tawaw, a supportive living centre for chronic homelessness in downtown Fort McMurray, on June 5, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

The program has seen much success since opening. Packham estimates there has been a 90 per cent drop in Tawâw residents accessing medical services or having encounters with the police and justice system. One client had been to the ER 57 times in 2023. Since entering the program, he’s been to the ER twice in the last three times. 

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A Wednesday tour of the building was joined by councillors Lance Bussieres, Kendrick Cardinal, Keith McGrath, and Indigenous relations director Dennis Fraser. All of them were shocked to hear that Tawâw’s future is in question.

“We are bleeding. We are going in the hole every month,” said Packham. “This will ruin our whole organization and not just this program. If you fast forward, what does that look like for our community?”

McGrath responded “devastating.”

“Obviously, we can’t lose this,” said Bussieres.

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