Five Years of Couch Surfing: One NWT Woman’s Struggle to Find a Home

Every evening, Marlene Menacho walks, visits friends and relatives in Tulita, a community of less than 500 people in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories. Around midnight, the 49-year-old woman returned to her nephew’s house.

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

That’s when she won’t bother anyone.

She will go to sleep on the couch in the living room.

For the past 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 that if I don’t ask, no one will do it for me,” she said.

Tulita’s main street, Mackenzie Drive, on a winter’s day in March 2019. ‘Unfortunately, Tulita is one of many communities where the waiting list for homes is longer than we have available homes’ said the Northwest Territories Housing Minister. (John Last/CBC)

Menacho has been on the waiting list for social housing in his community for years. Her situation is generally not what people think of when they think of homelessness in the Northwest Territories.

It’s often hidden, but Menacho and dozens of others in small northern communities are still homeless.

“I don’t want to lose hope. I’m praying for a home,” she said.

Conquer $13,000 in debt

Menacho first entered public housing in Tulita thirty years ago. She lived in a two-bedroom house, worked occasionally, and drank heavily. When she wasn’t working, her rent was about $70 a month. When she had a job, she was billed near the market rate.

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

Over three years, she racked up $13,000 in back rent, and in 2016 she received an eviction notice. She moved out soon after.

Menacho has spent years paying $13,000 in back rent, only to find she’s on a waiting 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 young grandson for several years. But then they moved to another community, leaving Menacho with nowhere to go.

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

Almost every dollar she earned, Menacho said, went to pay her arrears. In 2021, thanks to $3,000 in assistance from the YWCA of the Northwest Territories, she was finally able to pay off her debt.

“I felt like I was on top of the hill. It felt good. I felt like I was going to touch the sky or something. It just felt good to done something,” she said.

Waiting for a house

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

She says she has contacted the Tulita Housing Association and Northwest Territories Housing Minister Paulie Chinna several times, but usually gets the same response.

Blueberry Hill, overlooking the majestic Mackenzie River outside of Tulita, Northwest Territories (Peter Sheldon/CBC)

“Unfortunately, Tulita is one of many communities where the waiting list for homes is longer than we have units available to respond to,” Chinna Menacho wrote in a Dec. 6 email.

“Although a number of homes have recently been repaired and returned to service, unfortunately the demand has far exceeded the supply of available units.”

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

There are 2,600 social housing units spread across the 33 communities of the Northwest Territories, but most of them are decades old. Some suffer from environmental damage, such as erosion and mold. Many are also overcrowded, which has been a concern with COVID-19.

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

And why northern premiers have raised it among the issues Canada needs to address to claim sovereignty in the Arctic, hoping that there will be some recognition of the specific needs of the North in the federal budget for Thursday, which should focus on the skyrocketing 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 Northwest Territories through the National Housing Co-Investment Fund.

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

“In my community, there are too many people living in one house, overcrowded,” Tulita Mayor Douglas Yallee said on the day the funding was announced. “To be on the waiting list, it’s a long time to wait for accommodation, for your own accommodation.”

“There must be more housing to do. But it helps, let’s put it that way.”

Menacho with his grandchildren. (Submitted by Marlene Menacho)

The SRC contacted the hamlet of Tulita to find out if construction of these units had begun, but received no response. The Northwest Territories Housing Corporation did not respond to questions about the number of people on the waiting list for public housing.

Meanwhile, Menacho says she just has to wait. She continues to accept odd jobs and says she refuses to stay anywhere for free.

“Wherever I stay, I’m doing something. I can’t stay there for nothing. I have to clean up or refund or give back. When I get money I tell them ‘it’s for an electricity bill or coffee’ and I’ll give it to them,” she said.

“It’s hard. Living in your suitcase day after day. I don’t know what my next step will 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’ll think I gave up.