Employment program helps Yellowknife's homeless turn their lives around

Yellowknife's homelessness employment program has been helping people on the street gain work experience and turn their lives around.

'[This job] gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day,' says Lee Abel

Lee Abel has been working for Common Ground since June. He says he's dedicated to the job. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Lee Abel is focused as he chips away at the ice along 51 Avenue in downtown Yellowknife. 

It's –13 C, but Abel doesn't seem to notice. He's intent on finishing the job.

Since June, Abel has been working with Common Ground — a local initiative that employs the city's homeless. In a little over half a year, he's started to turn his life around.

"It's definitely improved a hell of a lot," he told CBC during a short break.

"[This job] gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, because it's that much cleaner around here."

Lee Abel says in over half a year, he's started to turn his life around thanks to the Common Ground program. 0:30

Abel said he likes his job because it keeps him busy and "out of trouble." Before working with Common Ground, Abel kept himself occupied drinking to pass time, he said. 

"This keeps me out of that rut."

With his paycheques he's been able to buy new clothes and a cellphone to keep in touch with his employer.

Some workers with Common Ground clear the sidewalk in downtown Yellowknife. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Making a 'plan to get off the streets'

"He's stepped into the supervision position, so he's stepping up," said Michael Fatt, Common Ground's project co-ordinator. Fatt was homeless for five years and is now working to help others get off the street.

You can tell they're thinking about what they could possibly do from this point on.- Michael Fatt, co-ordinator for Common Ground

He said he's impressed with Abel's dedication.

"In the old days I would go work for a day and then I'd get paid and then spend it on booze. But him, he's taking it and buying himself clothes, work gear, buying himself things that he needs," Fatt said.

"He's scheming and making his little plan to get off the streets. That's the change that I see."

Michael Fatt says Common Ground helps the city's homeless 'dream about doing something better for themselves.' (Steve Silva/CBC)

Common Ground started in May with money from the City of Yellowknife. It's run by the Yellowknife Women's Society.

Along with the money, the program is also sustaining itself with commercial contracts to clean properties and shovel snow.

Fatt said since Common Ground started, he's seen several homeless people find jobs. One man went to work at Giant Mine, while another got temporary work with a local contractor.

More on-the-land work opportunities

Fatt said he thinks Common Ground is a "cure" to the city's homelessness problem.

"You can tell they're thinking about what they could possibly do from this point on," he explained. "It's for them to succeed in life."

Fatt would like to see more opportunities for the homeless to find work going on excursions on the land, doing things like fishing and making dry meat. 

He'd also like to see something like a detox centre in the territory to help the homeless have long-term treatment without going to the South.