Yellowknife homelessness action plan sees results, says RCMP

The number of people in police cells in Yellowknife has gone down by almost 41 per cent since last year, and RCMP are attributing it to initiatives brought forward in the city's 10-year action plan to end homelessness.

'We recognize that being in a police cell is not the best environment,' says Insp. Alex Laporte

The street outreach van outside of the sobering and day centre in downtown Yellowknife. Both initiatives have helped cut down on the number of people staying in police cells this year, says RCMP. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

The number of people in Yellowknife's police cells has gone down by 41 per cent over the last year, and RCMP are attributing that drop to initiatives brought forward in the 10-year action plan to end homelessness in Yellowknife.

The plan is a joint initiative between the city, N.W.T. government, RCMP, Indigenous governments and non-profit organizations.

"We recognize that being in a police cell is not the best environment," said Insp. Alex Laporte, detachment commander for the Yellowknife RCMP.

"When it's in relation to being homeless or having addictions or other issues, there are better programs for them."

In 2017, police saw 2,725 people held in cells. As of Dec.10, 2018, that number dropped to just over 1,600, according to monthly statistics presented to city council. 

Laporte said the drop is thanks to services like the street outreach program, which started in July last year.

Staff and volunteers patrol the streets in a van, looking for individuals who need to be taken somewhere safe. They also take calls for assistance from the public, municipal enforcement and RCMP.

Trying to find somewhere warm

Sarah Bretzer, the program's co-ordinator, said on average her team gets two to three calls from RCMP a day.

"We've had some nights where we've dealt with them for eight of our clients in one evening," she said.

On average, the program helps 35 to 42 people a day.

Sarah Bretzer says on average, the street outreach program receives two to three calls from RCMP a day. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

"A lot of [our clients] actually joke about how they each had their own favourite cell that they would go to because they had to spend so many nights there," she said.

"A lot of them actually said that they would go out just to get into trouble just so that they know that they'd have somewhere warm to stay."

Laporte said the program helps his officers focus on other things. For example, last year, Yellowknife RCMP saw more charges in relation to impaired drivers.

"That was an indicator to us that our members are able to get to the calls for service quicker," he explained. "They're patrolling the roads a little more so that time is better used in police related functions than public health functions."

A staff member speaks with a client in the day centre portion of the centre. The day centre provides a warm place for people to get a meal, while the sobering centre is a place for intoxicated people to sleep. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

'This has definitely improved their lives'

One of the places the street outreach program takes people is the sobering centre/day shelter in downtown Yellowknife. 

The day centre portion of the building provides a warm place for people to get a meal and spend time during the day, and the sobering centre gives intoxicated individuals a place to sleep.

Mark Bogan works as a community case co-ordinator — helping clients get ID, providing counselling services and taking people to the hospital. Currently, he has 25 clients.

To him, the sobering centre is a safer, warmer place for the city's homeless than a police cell.

"This has definitely improved their lives," he said.

"This is a bit more comfortable. We have proper cots. They don't sleep on cement. We have proper blankets, pillows. We have a medic, so if there are medical emergencies that we can easily access the ambulance ... They're just happier, I think, being here."

While Bogan has seen the difference the sobering centre has made in the city, he thinks more could be done. For example, he would like to see a detox centre come to Yellowknife. 

Mark Bogan says the sobering centre is a safer, warmer place for the city's homeless to stay than in police cells. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

With files from Mario De Ciccio