'I don't think people realize it was temporary': Iqaluit's damp shelter to close

After opening with fanfare six months ago, Iqaluit's damp shelter is closing its doors July 1.

City councillors call for Nunavut’s gov't to keep the shelter's lights on

The Red Cross had donated cots to the damp shelter, which opened over the winter. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

After opening with fanfare six months ago, Iqaluit's damp shelter is closing its doors July 1.

City councillors are calling for action to keep dozens of people off the street, but the Nunavut government says the pilot project that launched the shelter has run its course. 

The shelter opened over the winter, after Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit decided it would no longer allow people to stay the night unless they were seeking medical help. Local men's and women's shelters don't welcome people who have consumed alcohol or drugs and often have no beds to spare.

Barring homeless people from the hospital left some with nowhere to go at night. An emergency meeting led to the opening of the damp shelter — a place for sober and intoxicated people to stay.

The shelter was licensed by the fire marshal to have 17 cots, with a few more emergency beds. Since it opened in January, the number of users has steadily increased.

'A real benefit for the community'

Kyle Sheppard, a city councillor in Iqaluit, wants the territorial government to keep the shelter open.

"It's been a real benefit for the community. It's lowered incarceration rates in cells with the RCMP and it's provided a safe space for many people to go in the evenings," he said.

It's been a real benefit to the community.- Kyle Sheppard, Iqaluit city councillor

In the end, Sheppard says closing the shelter will put a strain on other government services like health and justice.

"The potential costs to the government of funding those resources might outweigh the actual cost of operating the shelter itself," he said.

"The city doesn't have the resources to fund it," he added. "Something like this is really viewed as being in the realm of the GN's responsibility."

The Inukshuk Guardian Society, the organization of volunteers and staff operating the shelter, needs $130,000 to stay open. Volunteers have helped people apply for documents such as social insurance numbers and health-care cards.

No money reserved, says gov't

The territorial Department of Family Services says it has no money reserved for the pilot project, and it has maxed out spending it carved out of budgeted services.

The building currently housing the damp shelter was only intended for emergency use. It had been abandoned for several years, according to Elisapee Sheutiapik, minister of family services.

"That building wasn't utilized for several years, even some temporary use should be appreciated," she said. "I don't think people realize it was temporary."

Without capital funds to build a new shelter, the department is relying on local organizations or the city to offer a new space.

"Probably the toughest part of my job is trying to accommodate," Sheutiapik said. "Our department is certainly looking at potential partners like the city."

The damp shelter pilot project was expected to end in April, but it was extended for three months.

Sheutiapik says with the warmer weather, many people opt for tents. But according to numbers from the society running the shelter, the number of users has increased over the months.

It says on average, 21 people stay at the shelter each night and nearly half are sober. In total, 211 different people have used the shelter since January. Many are from outside of Iqaluit and escaping violence or looking for a warm place to stay.

Sheutiapik says a new men's shelter building is expected to open in the new year, but before then, the government has no plans to reopen the damp shelter.