Homelessness in Yellowknife is worse than in almost any area of Canada, according to visiting experts – but the city is on the right track.

Dr Stephen Gaetz, who helped the city conduct a “point-in-time” homelessness count this week, compared the apparent numbers in Yellowknife unfavourably with Toronto at a public forum on Thursday evening.

Early estimates following this week’s count suggest that around 150 people in Yellowknife, a city of 20,000, are homeless.

“Toronto has a population of 2.7 million people and the largest population of homeless people in the country, in terms of numbers: about 5,000,” said Gaetz, who directs the national Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

“If you use the per capita number from Yellowknife and apply that to Toronto, that number would expand from 5,000 to over 30,000. So there’s an exponentially greater number of people who experience homelessness up here.”

Read: City of Yellowknife conducts first-ever homelessness count

However, Gaetz believes the city has the right mindset to effect change in years to come.

“The flip side of that is you also have a very active community that wants to do something about it,” he told Moose FM.

“And not just do the usual kinds of things, but do things differently.

“In Canada, for too long we’ve relied on managing homelessness with emergency services like shelters, soup kitchens, that kind of thing.

“The way forward is to shift away from that to ending homelessness through focusing on preventing it, but also moving people out of homelessness as quickly as we can, with the supports they need.”

The City of Yellowknife has committed itself to Housing First – a model which proposes ensuring homeless people are given safe, appropriate, lasting accommodation before services are found to meet their other needs.

City staff and local partners are one year into a five-year plan designed to pave the way for Housing First to be implemented.

Gaetz believes that model will be key to Yellowknife’s success in tackling homelessness.

“You’re also really targeting youth homelessness, which I really tip my hat to,” he continued. “Because if you really want to have a long-term impact on homelessness, you have to get at the young person.

“Every chronically homeless adult out there on the streets likely had their first experience of homelessness when they were young.”

Read: New facility will take in homeless youth in Yellowknife

Dr Gaetz addressed Yellowknife residents and city officials at City Hall on Thursday, alongside Melanie Redman, a specialist in the prevention and reduction of youth homelessness.

Picking up on Gaetz’s point, Redman said the next three years will see Yellowknife will form part of a pilot program to address youth homelessness, alongside five other Canadian communities.

“Housing First focuses on the chronically and episodically homeless, but that isn’t homeless youth. We were concerned that youth were just a line in many plans, when we know the causes of youth homelessness are unique,” said Redman, the director of national initiatives at Eva’s Initiatives.

SideDoor Youth Centre

The SideDoor Youth Centre is among organizations helping Yellowknife’s homeless youth.

Redman and her organization will assist Yellowknife with delivery of the program in years to come.

“We felt that Yellowknife was ready,” she told us. “There was a competitive application process and we were looking for the demonstrated ability to make change happen.

“Step one is integrated services and a whole continuum of care for young people. That’s one piece, but we can’t let a community stop there.

“The other piece is looking at what’s driving young people into homelessness, and how we can make changes so we’re not dropping young people into homelessness.

“How are we supporting young people when they exit the foster care system? Where are the supports for young people experiencing mental health crises or addictions challenges? The education, health and criminal justice systems are all discharging people into homelessness.

“We have to work with them to help them make effective plans for how a young person transitions out of those institutions.”