City council to hold vote on Yellowknife day shelter next week, after committee debate
Shelter advocates urged council to consider people, not building, at heart of issue
Three of six city politicians present for a committee meeting in Yellowknife Monday said they would support the N.W.T. government's plan to turn a downtown building into a temporary day shelter until Oct. 31, 2024.
A noon meeting of the city's governance and priorities committee at Yellowknife's city hall was an opportunity for the territorial government to pitch its plan for 4709 Franklin Ave., and for a handful of stakeholders and advocates to share their perspectives on the issue.
The permit application won't be formally voted on until a special council meeting next week.
"If we don't get the go-ahead on this, I'm not sure where we're going to turn to next," said Perry Heath, the director of infrastructure and planning for the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services near the end of his presentation to the committee.
However, alternatives were part of the discussion on Monday. So too were criticisms of the territorial government's handling of the need for an emergency solution, concerns about property damage, the pitting of small businesses against the community and flaws in the bureaucratic process.
"This bylaw process privileges the properties in trust of a select few Yellowknifers over the lives and safety … of other citizens," said Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, which runs a number of programs that serve those who are underhoused.
The city is currently reviewing its bylaw process. As it stands, however, Rao said it would allow people to appeal the city's decision based on stereotypes and anecdotal evidence.
"That is discrimination," she said.
Rao also noted the appeals process doesn't allow for people who support the shelter location to share their thoughts.
However, Mayor Rebecca Alty pointed out the municipality was open to communication from stakeholders from all over the city and that an open letter from a group of concerned residents who support the day shelter had been attached to the committee's agenda.
By Monday afternoon, an online version of the letter had been signed by 80 people — including business owners.
Michael Fatt, who runs an employment program for people who are homeless, said that those who would be served by the shelter were absent from the conversation at city hall.
"I would like to mention we are talking about human beings and lives," Fatt told the committee.
"I know you know that. Nobody at this table is stupid. In a sense, we're all spiritual and mature people, and I'd like to appeal to that."
Fatt spoke about his personal experiences being homeless, the trauma of being part of the Sixties Scoop, and the continuum of care needed for someone to adapt to being housed again.
Councillor apologizes for Sixties Scoop comparison
Fatt's comments were followed up by a comparison for which Coun. Niels Konge later apologized.
"I think that the struggle that the homeless people are going through, the business community, the small business community in Yellowknife, is very much feeling that same struggle in terms of survival everyday right now during COVID," he said. "They're getting shut down by forces way beyond them, kind of like the Sixties Scoop."
Alty, who was chairing the meeting, responded by saying the two things were not comparable, and later on, Konge offered his "sincere apologies" for what he called a "horrible comparison."
Also at the meeting, Heath, from the Health and Social Services department, addressed concerns about damage to neighbouring buildings downtown.
"We understand those things happen now, without the facility," said Heath, noting that it's difficult to pinpoint any one building or facility as the reason for the damage. "We would probably suggest that those types of things would be minimized or reduced with this facility because predominately, it gives people a place to go."
Heath said the department was open to alternatives, such as modular housing used by those working on the Tłı̨chǫ highway that will become available for rent in mid-October. But all locations would require the same permitting process, he said.
How councillors might vote
Councillors Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan, as well as Mayor Alty, said they would support the proposed day shelter location, while Coun. Stacie Smith said she was still undecided.
"It's damned if you do, damned if you don't," said Smith.
Coun. Steve Payne said he couldn't support the building being turned into a shelter for three years, though he would have voted in favour of the permit had it been for a period of six months instead.
Coun. Konge didn't state his position, and suggested deferring a formal decision until the territorial government came back with concrete commitments regarding a written complaint conflict resolution process, the development of communication tools, surveillance, maintenance of public areas and appropriate staffing levels.
Alty said those commitments might ease concerns people have about the shelter. She also said that if the permit was approved next week, they would be a condition of the permit being issued.
Councillors Rommel Silverio and Cynthia Mufandaedza were not present at the committee meeting. Coun. Robin Williams, who owns a business downtown, recused himself.