'Survival mode': Homeless seek a warm spot to sleep as Yellowknife shelters at capacity

Winter has barely set in and Yellowknife's two shelters for men and women are regularly full. 'I don't know what they're gonna do when it's 40 below,' says a regular Salvation Army shelter client.

'I don't know what they're gonna do when it's 40 below,' says a regular Salvation Army shelter client

Three people sleep around a warm air vent between Yellowknife office buildings on Nov. 22. The low that night was -23C. (Harriet Paul/CBC)

Clayton Bearard's sleeping spot is underneath a stairwell next to a heat vent between two downtown Yellowknife buildings.

The vent blows just enough warm air to keep him from freezing.

"You need a set of gloves, you need a hoodie, and a jacket," he says. "And then you could curl up."

He says sometimes in the middle of the night someone will come up and ask to sleep beside him.

"Now it's even warmer, you know," he says, breaking out in laughter.

The vent during the day. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

A few years ago, Clayton found out the hard way how dangerous the cold can be. Nighttime lows in the city can often dip below -40 C. He says one night it got so cold that both of his feet froze.

"I cannot feel my feet they're numb [and] tingling," he says.

He wears large winter boots with thick liners now to keep his feet warm. When he does not have a place to stay he will sift through garbage bins looking for extra clothing and sometimes wrap himself in garbage bags just to stay warm.

"It's survival mode," he says.

Clayton Bearard, left, often sleeps on the street. His friend Steve slept in a tent last winter but now makes sure to get to the Salvation Army shelter early each night to get a bed. The shelter often reaches capacity and has to turn people away. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

Clayton is a journeyman welder by trade but he has not worked for nearly a decade due to a condition called spinal stenosis that causes him severe back pain. He says prescription painkillers don't help. He smokes marijuana and drinks alcohol to try and ease the pain but he says, "Nothing works. I even told my doctor."

And sleeping on cold, hard concrete does not help.

"My back kills me when I sleep here," he says. "Some days you'll see me…[I can] barely walk."

He shovels sidewalks or moves boxes for a few dollars.

Clayton Bearard's winter boots. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

On any given night the number of people sleeping outdoors varies, he says. It all depends on how cold it is and if the emergency shelters are full. He says many sleep in abandoned vehicles, or in apartment building stairwells, anywhere they can get shelter from the cold.

His friend Steve, who did not want to share his last name, says he used to work as a crane operator before his alcohol addiction got the better of him.

This is the vent near which Clayton Bearard often beds down. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

"I slept in a tent last winter and it was so cold you have to peel everything off you cause it's all froze."

Now Steve stays at the men's shelter at the Salvation Army. He says he gets there early so he can get a bed, but not everyone is so lucky.

"They closed [Salvation Army] last night... too many people," he says.

"I don't know what they're gonna do when it's 40 below…. You bang on the RCMP [door], say 'arrest me?'"

Emergency shelters full

Winter has barely set in and Yellowknife's two shelters for men and women are regularly reaching capacity.

Capt. Mark Stanley, the Salvation Army's divisional secretary for public relations, says its shelter provides 49 beds for men but it is routinely full.

"Need is greater than the capacity," he says.

Stanley says last year the organization was taking in more people than they were allowed, but that got them into trouble with the city's fire marshal. He says it is a real challenge to turn people away when there are no other options for them.

The Centre for Northern Families provides 23 shelter beds for women. Bree Denning, the centre's executive director, says they are also at capacity on a regular basis. Denning says they try not to turn anyone away without some solution.

A point in time count in May 2015 estimated a minimum number of 139 homeless people in Yellowknife. 

Other options for Yellowknife's homeless who can't find shelter, besides sleeping outdoors, include asking the RCMP detachment to spend the night in one of their holding cells, or sleeping on a chair in the public waiting room at Stanton Territorial Hospital.

The hospital's chief operating officer Colin Goodfellow says they typically get about four to eight people there every night from between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. 

"We opened it up about three weeks ago as a pilot to see if we could divert some people from the emergency department and keep some of our friends and neighbours in out of the cold," he said.

Margaret Cochrane, manager, at the emergency women's shelter at Centre for Northern Families. The bunkbeds are relatively new. Until recently, the women slept on mats on the floor. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

Plan to expand shelter space

In October, the City of Yellowknife released a Yellowknife Homelessness Road Map Action Plan that outlined a number of priorities. Representatives from the city, territorial government, non-profits, and RCMP came up with a number of short and long-term solutions.

Among them was the expansion of both emergency shelters within six months.

The N.W.T. Housing Corporation set aside $600,000 to renovate space in both shelters for semi-independent and single occupancy units, aimed at freeing up much-needed emergency shelter space.

Women at the Centre for Northern Families shelter are permitted to store belongings in bins at the shelter during the day. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

Denning says the Centre for Northern Families will be moving its day care operation, which is in the centre's basement, to a new location. The basement will then be converted into eight separate bedroom units that will be rented out to women that rely on the shelter. She says the units should be available in the next few months.

On the other hand, the Salvation Army says no one from the City of Yellowknife or the territorial government has approached it yet about expanding its shelter. Stanley says to expand their services they would need to find a new building because there is simply no more room in their current location. He says an expansion would also probably require hiring additional staff.

In the meantime, Clayton's struggle to stay warm remains a frigid reality.

"I'm just gonna survive," he says. "I'm gonna keep doing small little things here and there. Feed myself and keep myself warm and clean."

The Centre for Northern Families plans to convert its basement into eight separate bedroom units that will be rented out to women that rely on the shelter. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)


Curtis Mandeville is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. He is from Fort Resolution, N.W.T.