Charlotte Morritt Jacobs
When Brenda Kowana asked for some donation money to replace beading materials lost to a fire, she never expected the response she received.
“I phoned the YWCA and she said, ‘Brenda you are going to be getting more donations but then we are going to have to take you shopping.’ I felt like crying, I felt so humiliated,” Kowana told APTN News.
Kowana is one of 86 people who were displaced by the Oct. 2 Rockhill fire.
The YWCA’s Rockhill transitional housing mostly catered to low-income and vulnerable families – a great number of them are Indigenous people coming from various communities in the Northwest Territories.
At the time of the fire the YWCA urged the public to donate directly to the not-for-profit instead of individual families.
Now Kowana and other fire victims are voicing their desire to manage some of the $258,000 donated following the blaze seven weeks ago.
“I don’t think they [donators] know where the money went. They [YWCA] stated on one of their releases that furniture and beds were bought. OK, I am not happy with that, I want to see the receipts,” Kowana said.
Kowana showed APTN her winter gear: a black jacket that still smells of smoke, beat-up sneakers with mismatched insoles, and paper-thin gloves.
Shortly after the fire the YWCA gave her a Walmart gift card, but the nominal amount didn’t cover things like orthotic shoes which she needs for work.
Eugene Harris who escaped the fire with his girlfriend and daughter reached out to Kowana and other people from Rockhill, listening to their grievances and taking his own concerns to social media.
“There are still people from our building you can see posting on Facebook asking for stuff,” he said. “Why are they asking for kids clothes when there is all of this money? They could easily give us a cheque each.”
Harris said he was not surprised when he heard of victims being escorted by YWCA workers when they needed to go to the store.
“We were paraded all over and used to raise this money and yet we basically never got it and never had any right to it,” he said.
How is the $238,000 being managed?
Lyda Fuller, the executive director for YWCA in the NWT, said donations provided to victims total $87,500 which went towards beds, furniture, rental subsidies, groceries and supplies.
Fuller told APTN the majority of funds raised is going to private market leases, to the tune of $111,000 with some of the remaining funds going towards rental subsidies.
There has also been an order placed to The Brick with delivery costs upwards of $30,000, and additional furniture that is on its way to Yellowknife in the amount of $67,000.
But Harris said he did not receive any help for rent and that many fire victims including himself were asked to foot the bill for damage deposits.
“We were told to apply for a government subsidy homeless coalition grant,” Harris said. “I had a home-based business so I couldn’t qualify. I made too much money in the past. But pretty much all of my saving and online business all burnt up in the fire.”
Similarly, Kowana said she is under the impression that she will not be able to access much of the funds raised because she is on income support.
In the Legislative Assembly, MLA Julie Green asked Housing Minister Caroline Cochrane if Rockhill fire victims on income support would receive donated money – the answer was not clear.
The scattered living does not provide the same level of safety and support for Rockhill clients.
“We have had windows broken and we have had damages to units by angry partners who have found their partner. There hasn’t been that extra protection to keep them from accessing those units,” Fuller explained.
She said some abusers have found ex-partners in public rental units because they are no longer in a space with an outside security system.
The YWCA has visited Ottawa and asked the federal government for a new building, as there are vacant properties owned by Ottawa in Yellowknife.
Rockhill was owned by the territorial government and leased by the YWCA.
APTN asked the YWCA whether victims like Kowana and Harris will receive cash to spend as they see fit.
The answer? It’s messy.
“We looked at that but there are a few problems,” said Fuller. “First of all, if you are on income assistance they [income assistance] will claw it back so it won’t do you any good.”
Fuller said she has only received a few requests from victims so far.
“I don’t know what people’s expectations were at the time. It never occurred to me that it [for cash] might be an expectation.”
She said housing staff are currently sorting out if there are vouchers that can be bought to give to victims so they can shop with greater independence.
Until this is sorted out, all Kowana and Harris can do is wait.