Violence at Yellowknife's sobering centre, day shelter up for discussion at city council

Supporters of Yellowknife's joint sobering centre and day shelter made their case to city councillors Monday, after neighbours complained they're seeing more violence in the area.

'There is quite a bit of violence,' said one frequent visitor

Neighbours of the joint sobering centre and day shelter on 50th Street say the clientele have been violent and are making the area unsafe. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Supporters of Yellowknife's joint sobering centre and day shelter made their case to city councillors Monday after neighbours complained they're seeing more violence in the area. 

One neighbour detailed an incident where a woman was choked until she went unconscious in broad daylight and left on the ground on the middle of a sidewalk. 

"That could have happened in the back alley somewhere in the dead of night and nobody was there to witness," said April Desjarlais, who owns the Finn Hansen building next to the centre. She brought the issue to council last month.

'It's pretty bad,' said Connie Pittman, who often spends time at the day centre. 'There is quite a bit of violence.' (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Neighbours aren't the only ones seeing the violence.

"It's pretty bad. I don't know how else to say it," Connie Pittman told CBC outside of the centre. She often spends time there with her partner, who she said has an alcohol addiction.

"I do agree with the other organizations around this place. There is quite a bit of violence."

Over 900 people used the centre

On Monday, supporters of the shelter made their case to Yellowknife city councillors at their Governance and Priorities Committee meeting. 

Since opening in September, over 900 different people have accessed either the sobering or day centre, according to numbers from the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority.

"We have to look at the people that we're supporting as members of our community," said Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council, which runs the facility.

"We cannot demonize people because they have experienced trauma or they are vulnerable or marginalized." 

Supporters pointed to the relief the centre has given the RCMP, ambulance services, and Stanton Territorial Hospital. They said fewer intoxicated people are ending up in police cells or in the emergency room looking for a place to stay warm and sober up. 

Meeting with neighbours, working on security

Speaking for the health authority, Nathalie Nadeau said she was first made aware of neighbours' concerns in December. Since then, her department has met with them several times.

She said the N.W.T. Disabilities Council have started hiring day centre clients to clean up garbage left outside by other patrons, and to help keep the group in one area.

Nathalie Nadeau is director of Child, Family and Community Wellness for the NWT Health and Social Services Authority. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

She said her department is looking at ways for either the RCMP or municipal enforcement to increase their patrols in the area, and creating a safety plan along with a 'Good Neighbour' plan.

But that's not enough for Desjarlais, who wants to see RCMP or security in the area full time.

"Acts of violence don't happen [here] at specific times during the day," she said. "They're random, and you can't just expect that when the RCMP do a patrol that they're going to see a violent activity."

To protect her property, Desjarlais has put in costly security cameras, and is looking into installing an over $20,000 fence to block off the part of her building next to the sobering centre.

'It was doomed to fail'

Dejarlais agrees the centre is needed in Yellowknife, but says she wonders whether a sobering centre with a liquor store only feet away is causing more harm than good.

Some people walk around the sobering/day centre's property. 900 people have been to the two centres since it opened in September. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Adrian Bell is a former city councillor and owns a business downtown. He voted in favour of allowing the centre to open there.

He said it's one of his biggest regrets from his time on council.

"You see people coming and going and popping into the liquor store and then they're out in the back alley [drinking] … Seeing what we're seeing now, it was doomed to fail," he said.

Nadeau said clients don't want to go to the centre if it's on the 'outskirts' of town rather than downtown, and that's important to remember when talking about the location.

"It's a really difficult program to house so we need to consider the community itself [the clients], not necessarily just the impacted individuals," she said. 

With files from Alex Brockman and Avery Zingel