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Heated debate about shelter location hits Yellowknife city hall

Frustrated businesses and supportive residents have been writing letters of their own, after the territory's minister of health asked Yellowknife to support its application for a temporary day shelter at 4709 Franklin Ave. That application is up for debate at city hall on Monday.

Some shelter supporters say business arguments are founded in ignorance

Health Minister Julie Green's open letter, asking Yellowknife to support a temporary day shelter at 4709 Franklin Ave., prompted businesses and residents to write letters of their own — many voicing frustration, and one calling for compassion. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

A debate about the location of a temporary day shelter in downtown Yellowknife hits city hall on Monday. 

Councillors are set to discuss the territorial government's plans for 4709 Franklin Ave. at a governance and priorities committee meeting, two weeks after Health Minister Julie Green issued an open letter calling on Yellowknife to support the site. 

Her plea prompted businesses and residents to write a flurry of letters of their own — many voicing frustration, and one calling for compassion. 

Now, city politicians will try to find a path through the fervour as they consider a memo in the meeting's agenda that sheds more light on the territorial government's intent for the building, which was most recently used by Aurora Village. 

If approved, the day shelter is expected to operate until Oct. 31, 2024 while the territory's health and social services department establishes a new, permanent day shelter and sobering centre on 51st Street, the memo said.

A report going to city hall says that if approved the day shelter would operate until the fall of 2024 and would be open every day from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

The shelter would be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day, with a capacity for about 50 people inside. It would complement the existing day shelter and sobering centre on 50th Street.

The facility would offer its visitors food, entertainment, a washroom, and a safe place to rest and warm up, as well as "entry-level case management," said the memo. Staff would be trained on de-escalation tactics and trauma-informed approaches, and would also patrol the area and adjacent buildings hourly. 

The shelter is considered a special care facility, and is therefore a conditionally permitted use of Yellowknife's downtown area — but city staff have recommended adding some conditions to the permit. In the memo, they suggest that a review take place more than 90 days before the permit expires, to see if an extension is needed, and to allow the public to weigh in on granting one. 

Staff also recommend a condition that a wheelchair ramp be installed by Nov. 15, 2021.

Because the shelter would be temporary, the memo says the city may revoke the permit at any time if it's considered "detrimental" to the area, and may also adjust the permit's time period.

Outcry from businesses

In a letter addressed to Green on Thursday, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce said it was "disappointed and frustrated" with the open letter the health minister issued on Sept. 13. 

"Your language makes clear that you intend on vilifying any opposition to your decision," said Tim Syer, the chamber's president and Deneen Everett, its executive director. "Business owners have valid objections to your decision and they deserve to be heard; this is why the appeals process exists."

Tim Syer, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said the organization was 'disappointed and frustrated' with the language of Green's letter on Sept. 13. (Kent Kallberg)

Green's letter, which called on Yellowknife to support the day shelter location, said an appeal would delay the shelter's opening by 90 days — meaning its critical services for the underhoused wouldn't become available until well into the winter. 

The chamber goes on to say businesses in Yellowknife deserve better communication, while people who are homeless deserve attention and a solution that meets their needs. 

Another letter, written by Geoff Morrison, the director of the Aurora Emporium Art Gallery, was addressed to Premier Caroline Cochrane directly and called 4709 Franklin Ave. an "astonishingly poor" location for a shelter. 

The gallery is inside a neighbouring building, which it shares with the Discovery Inn, the Red Apple Restaurant and the Yellowknife Vineyard Church. 

"We have on several occasions had international tourists seek refuge at our business, having been accosted outside of the premises after day shelters closed," wrote Morrison. "The public would be better served by leaving the temporary shelter at the local arena," he said, away from access to drugs and alcohol. 

The Aurora Emporium Art Gallery is one of several businesses that submitted letters to city hall decrying the territory's intent to turn the neighbouring 4709 Franklin Ave. into a temporary shelter until the fall of 2024. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Several letters criticized the territorial government for not consulting businesses first, and highlighted the struggle many face amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Restaurants, coffee shops and gyms are struggling to meet expenses, let alone run profitably," wrote Norma Nelson, the owner of Break Away Fitness, which is around the corner from the proposed location. "Now with the proposal of the day shelter next to businesses, the situation will get worse and extremely hard for some of us to survive." 

Business arguments founded on ignorance, say some residents

A letter written by a group of concerned residents who support a downtown day shelter, however, said the argument that a shelter would be bad for business "is founded on ignorance and prejudice." 

"Evidence shows that emergency day shelters are an essential component of a 'well-functioning system of care' that addresses homelessness and provides a gateway to permanent housing and essential services," the group said. 

Their letter said a temporary day shelter is the "bare-minimum of care that must be provided" and it implored businesses to "be leaders in speaking out against the stigma and systemic racism that harm our street-involved citizens." 

It pointed out that at least 90 per cent of the more than 300 street-involved people in Yellowknife are Dene, Inuit, and/or Métis, and most are impacted by the intergenerational trauma of residential schools.

The letter said its signatories would compile a list of businesses that endorse a downtown shelter and would commit to supporting them. 

"Furthermore, we may choose to avoid businesses who actively stand in the way of this shelter." 

As of Sunday afternoon, an online version had been signed by 37 people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liny Lamberink

Reporter/Editor

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She can be reached at liny.lamberink@cbc.ca

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