Yellowknife parking lot day shelter closed over 'misunderstanding,' says N.W.T. health minister

The limited day-use shelter outside of the Aspen Apartments on 51st Street in Yellowknife opened at the start of June. By Wednesday, it had disappeared.

City permit for space requires a 2-week waiting period so residents can voice concerns

Signs on the front door of Aspen Apartments tells people with concerns about the temporary day use shelter closure to contact the Minister of Health and Social Services or the Mayor of Yellowknife. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

A temporary space for people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife has closed for at least a week because of what the N.W.T.'s Minister of Health and Social Services calls a "misunderstanding" and what one homeless advocate calls a "pattern that keeps repeating itself."

"We understood that we could occupy the space from June the 1st but it turned out, in fact, we had to wait for two weeks," Minister Julie Green told CBC News on Wednesday. 

The limited day-use shelter in the parking lot of Aspen Apartments on 51st Street — made up of some canopy tents and picnic tables, and which also offered storage space and portable bathrooms — opened at the start of the month. 

On Wednesday, all that was left were notices posted to a mailbox and the building's front doors saying the City of Yellowknife would allow the outdoor area to be used as a temporary food distribution centre starting June 16 and that people could bring their concerns about the closure to Green or Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty.

For the past week, a temporary day use shelter outside Aspen Apartments offered storage, a space to sit, portable bathrooms and a bite to eat. But as of Wednesday, all that was left were signs on a mailbox and on the front door saying the shelter had been closed. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

"The city has a process for issuing temporary use permits and they want to follow the process. It's their process," said Green. The two week waiting period allows people to decide if they want to appeal the city's decision, she explained.

In an email response city spokesperson Alison Harrower said the city "appreciates" that the territorial government "acted quickly to stop this unauthorized use."

Harrower also said the city had offered an alternate interim location, without specifying where that was, and said the government declined that offer. 

When asked why the government didn't apply for the necessary permit earlier in a follow up question via email, Green said Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority and the Health and Social Services department had been working on another solution that didn't work out. 

Nick Sowsun, organizer of the group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter, raised issues Wednesday with how little notice people were given about the closure. He drew parallels with a closure a little more than a week ago of a temporary day shelter at Yellowknife's old SideDoor building.

The outdoor space at Aspen Apartments had been a solution for that closure. 

"The people who need a place to go … have had it taken from them now twice in the span of 10 days," Sowsun said. "The city and the GNWT can't seem to find an approach that works. Things keep hitting roadblocks. Services keep getting shut down. There's finger pointing." 

Sowsun said it's also hard to understand how four days after a march to honour the remains of children found at a former residential school site drew hundreds of people, the community "just completely fell short." 

"Who is more obviously struggling with that legacy than the street involved population," he said, adding many are Indigenous people.

"I have no doubt that many of them themselves are survivors, or otherwise the children of survivors." 

Green said she understands why that discrepancy is being pointed out, but, she said, "the fact is we can't operate without city permission."

In the meantime Green said the NWT Disabilities Council, which operates the primary day shelter in the city, would be stepping up with extra services to fill the gap.

"They are providing a take-out food service," she said. "There is a limit on the number of people who can be in the shelter …  but hopefully there will be an opportunity for people to go in and use the washroom." 

Green added it's not the "preferred option" for providing service.