Five years of couch surfing: One N.W.T. woman’s struggle to find a home

Every evening, Marlene Menacho goes out walking, visiting friends and relatives in Tulita, a community of fewer than 500 people in the N.W.T.’s Sahtu region. Around midnight, the 49-year-old returns to her nephew’s home. 

That’s when Menacho knows that the four other people who live in the two-bedroom house will be in bed.

That’s when she won’t be in anyone’s way. 

She’ll go to sleep on the couch in the living room. 

For the last five years, Menacho has gone from couch to couch, sleeping in the homes of her relatives and friends across the territory.

“It’s scary. I don’t like to ask. But I tell myself if I don’t ask, nobody’s gonna do it for me,” she said.

Tulita’s main street, Mackenzie Drive, on a winter day in March 2019. “Unfortunately Tulita is one of the many communities where the waitlist for houses is larger than we have available units to meet,” said the N.W.T.’s housing minister. (John Last/CBC)

Menacho has been on the waitlist for public housing in her community for years. Her situation is not usually what people think about when they think about homelessness in the Northwest Territories. 

It’s often hidden but Menacho and dozens of other people in small communities across the North are homeless all the same. 

“I don’t want to give up hope. I’m praying for a house,” she said.

Conquering $13K in debt

Menacho first got into public housing in Tulita thirty years ago. She lived in a two-bedroom home, working occasionally and was heavily into alcohol. When she wasn’t working, her rent was around $70 a month. When she did have employment, she was charged close to the market rate. 

“I got into the booze lots and instead of paying bills and stuff, I used [my money] for that,” Menacho said.

Within three years, she racked up $13,000 of rental arrears and in 2016 she was given an eviction notice. She moved out shortly after.

Menacho spent years paying off $13,000 in rental arrears, only to find she’s on a wait list that doesn’t seem to end. (Submitted by Marlene Menacho)

That’s when Menacho said she quit drinking. She moved in with her daughter and her young grandchild for several years. But then they moved to another community, leaving Menacho with nowhere to go. 

For the next three years, Menacho would take odd jobs and contracts while sleeping on the couches of her friends and family. She spent time living and working in other communities, including Wrigley and Norman Wells. 

Almost every dollar she made, Menacho said, went to pay off her arrears. In 2021, with $3,000 of help from the NWT YWCA, she was able to finally pay off her debt.

“It felt like I was on top of the hill. It felt good. I felt like I was going to touch the sky or something. Just made me feel good that I did something,” she says.

Waiting for a home

With her arrears gone, Menacho was put on the waitlist for a one-bedroom apartment in 2020. 

She says she has repeatedly contacted the Tulita Housing Association and the N.W.T. Minister of Housing, Paulie Chinna, but usually gets the same answer.

Blueberry Hill, overlooking the mighty Mackenzie River outside Tulita, N.W.T. (Peter Sheldon/CBC)

“Unfortunately Tulita is one of the many communities where the waitlist for houses is larger than we have available units to meet,” Chinna wrote Menacho in a Dec. 6, email.

“Although a number of homes were recently repaired and put back into service, unfortunately demand far exceeded the supply of available units.”

Chinna declined to speak on Menacho’s situation saying it would be “inappropriate” for her to speak about individual clients.

There are 2,600 public housing units spread through the N.W.T.’s 33 communities — but most of them are decades old. Some suffer from environmental damage, like erosion and mould. Many are also overcrowded, which has been a concern with COVID-19.

That’s why, last month, Chinna and other senior northern housing officials told a federal committee about the housing shortages in the three territories, its disproportionate impact on Indigenous people and what the federal government could do to help. 

And why Northern premiers raised it among the issues Canada needs to tackle to claim sovereignty in the Arctic, holding out hope there will be some recognition of the specific needs of the North in Thursday’s federal budget, which is expected to include a focus on the soaring cost of housing in Canada. 

In July 2021, the federal government announced it was investing $4.9 million to build eight modular housing units in Tulita. The funding is part of $60 million earmarked for the N.W.T. through the National Housing Co-Investment Fund.

Two of the units will be used as emergency accommodation for vulnerable persons in need, the federal government said. The other six units will accommodate elders and others in the community.

“In my community, there’s too many people living in one house, overcrowding,” Tulita mayor Douglas Yallee said the day of the funding announcement. “In order to be on the waiting list, that’s a long time to wait for housing, for their own home.”

“There needs to be more housing to be done. But it’s helpful, let’s put it that way.”

Menacho with her grandchildren. (Submitted by Marlene Menacho)

The CBC contacted the Hamlet of Tulita to find out if construction of those units had begun but didn’t hear back. The N.W.T. Housing Corporation didn’t respond to questions about how many people were on the waitlist for public housing.

Meanwhile, Menacho says she has nothing to do now but wait. She continues to take odd jobs and says she refuses to stay anywhere for free.

“Everywhere I stay I do something. I can’t just stay there for nothing. I have to clean or pay back or give back. When I do get money I’ll tell them ‘this is for a power bill or coffee’ and I’ll give it to them,” she says. 

“It is hard. Living out of your suitcase day in and day out. I don’t know what my next step is going to be. I still don’t know. I don’t know if I have to get up and leave tomorrow. But I don’t want to leave. If I leave they’re going to think I gave up.”  

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