Nunavut family of 11 goes without hot water for duration of COVID-19 outbreak

For one family of 11 in Arviat, a COVID-19 lockdown and a broken boiler means there hasn’t been hot water in their three-bedroom public housing unit for more than two weeks. While everyone is well, Cecilia Akammak says she has to boil water to hand wash and disinfect surfaces. 

The lockdown ended on Wednesday in the rest of Nunavut, where the number of active cases has fallen consistently throughout the week, leaving only a handful in Whale Cove and none in Rankin Inlet.  

But Arviat still has 44 active cases as of Friday. The community of about 2,550 people remains in full isolation with no travel in or out of the community while health staff work to curb community transmission. 

With schools closed and families confined to their homes in winter, the outbreak is highlighting the territory’s ongoing struggles with overcrowding and inadequate housing.  

WATCH | Nunavut’s chief public health officer on restrictions in Arviat:

Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, warns Arviat needs to keep its tight restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. 1:04

Emergency repairs only

Because maintenance staff with the local housing authority are isolating, too, the Nunavut Housing Corporation says only emergency repairs are possible. 

“I was even thinking to call the Health minister,” said Akammak, who lives with her husband, children and grandchildren. “It’s a kind of urgent emergency because we have to have hot water in hand, too. We have to boil it to be clean.”

Federal relief funds helped the municipality send food hampers to families who can’t go out to the store, and delivery of water by truck has been increased. 

Resident Jennifer Aulatut says the water in her home is yellow and makes her children sick.

Jennifer Aulatut, seen here with her children, said their Arviat home doesn’t have safe drinking water, but they can’t stay with family because it isn’t safe to visit during lockdown. (Submitted by Jennifer Aulatut)

“It’s not good water to drink or wash your hands,” she said. “If I want to have coffee, I buy some water at the store.” 

However, due to financial constraints, Aulatut said buying water is often not an option for her.  

Usually, she stays with family when her 60-year-old dilapidated home needs urgent repairs. 

But right now, she said, it isn’t safe to visit. 

No shelter, isolation space

A recent territorial survey on hidden homelessness found that more than 140 people in Arviat are homeless, and over 60 children live in unstable housing situations. 

There is no homeless shelter in the community and the territory’s Department of Family Services said to get one, a non-profit community group would have to organize it. 

We have nothing, absolutely nothing in our community.– Jenny Gibbons, Arviat resident

Jenny Gibbons, another Arviat resident, has been working to build support for a shelter in her community for the last two years, but faces her own struggles, like lack of Internet to access the forms and information from the government.

Gibbons says she knows what it’s like to rely on other people for housing.

“There are too many people in one house,” she said. “We have nothing, absolutely nothing in our community, and we need it.” 

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson said there are some separate isolation spaces identified in Arviat to help deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, but that these spaces are nowhere near the amount that would be needed to keep all sick people separate. 

Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson says there aren’t enough separate spaces in Arviat for people sick with COVID-19 to isolate away from their households. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

Because many households have a large number of people living together, Patterson said isolating one person isn’t helpful when others may already be infected. He also said it may be harmful to remove people from their support network while they’re ill. 

However, by following safety measures like cleaning and mask wearing, he said contact tracing teams are seeing that not everyone in a household will become ill.

Housing corp. can’t meet demand

Since 2018 there have been 45 public housing units built in Arviat, bringing the community to ninth place out of 25 on the territory’s list of communities most in need of housing. 

Territory-wide, the Nunavut Housing Corporation says more than 3,000 units are needed. But President Terry Audla says the 120 to 130 units the territory is able to build annually are not enough to keep up with demand. 

Each year, it costs the territory around $20,000 in upkeep for each of its 5,000 plus public housing units, and Audla said these overall maintenance costs increase as more units are built. Water and electricity are the highest bills, he said. 

Terry Audla, president of the Nunavut Housing Corporation, said the recent COVID-19 outbreak in the area has highlighted the strains that a territory-wide housing crisis puts on residents. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Audla hopes to access COVID-19 funding from a $1 billion pandemic-related rapid housing initiative announced through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. So far, he said COVID-19 support funds have only gone to personal protective equipment for his staff. 

“We are continuing to try and lobby for more dollars because of the housing crisis here in Nunavut, and the COVID-19 pandemic just magnifies it all,” Audla said. 

He views Arviat as a prime example of the crisis with “how it spread so quick, so fast.”

Housing builds in the territory are allocated based on the number of housing applications filed with a local housing office, as well as population growth and rates of overcrowding. 

The Nunvat government is currently having an independent review of that allocation method conducted, after MLAs said the housing wait lists reported for their communities did not accurately reflect what is needed on the ground. Audla said the report is expected to be done by summer of next year. 

No pandemic money yet for housing  

In an interview with CBC News last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called housing one solution to poor health, low education and high rates of family violence experienced in Nunavut. 

“We know how important it is to invest in housing and this pandemic has only exacerbated that and highlighted the need for more investments, and we will be there to do more for housing in the North,” Trudeau said. 

But in a news conference following last month’s announcement of $19.36 million in federal relief money for Nunavut, Premier Joe Savikataaq said pandemic funds so far aren’t meant for housing.

In the meantime, residents like Cecilia Akammak, Jennifer Aulatut and their families are doing their best to follow the public health restrictions despite the shortfalls of their living conditions now amplified by the pandemic.

“We have to be clean but it’s kind of hard without hot water,” Akammak said. “It’s tiring, too.” 

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