'A warm place to stay': Iqaluit shelter allowing intoxicated people to stay the night

The Qajuqturvik Food Centre in Iqaluit is hosting a wet shelter at night that will let people in if they are intoxicated. It’s the only shelter in Nunavut that allows this, according to officials with the territory’s Department of Family Services.

About 15 people expected to regularly use the nightly shelter hosted by the Qajuqturvik Food Centre

The Qajuqturvik Food Centre is hosting a wet shelter at night that will let people in if they are intoxicated. It's the only shelter in Nunavut that is doing this. (David Gunn/CBC)

As the temperature in Iqaluit fell to -20 C Monday, a unique homeless shelter opened its doors to give people who are intoxicated a safe place to stay the night.

The Qajuqturvik Food Centre is hosting a nightly wet shelter that lets people in who are intoxicated. It's the only shelter in Nunavut that does this, according to officials with the territory's Department of Family Services.

"In Iqaluit, it's a life and death situation when people don't have a place to go at night in this kind of extreme cold," said Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, the president of YWCA Agvvik, which runs Iqaluit's women's shelters.

"At the women's shelters we have a policy [that] people cannot come in drunk. There are problems with that and we can't recreate the conditions the women are fleeing from," she said.

"But it's really concerning when we ask [intoxicated people] to leave the shelter. We need to know they have a place to go."  

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, the president of YWCA Agvvik, says Iqaluit's shelters have good reasons to ban intoxicated people, but she is worried for the safety of people who are turned away. (Travis Burke/CBC)
  

Arnaquq-Baril is part of the group that has been planning the wet shelter since November. But things took on new urgency last week after the Qikiqtani General Hospital stopped letting people take shelter in its waiting room overnight.

Health Department officials said they made that change because of concerns about violence and sexual activity in its waiting room overnight.

About 15 people regularly stayed at the waiting room if they could not stay anywhere else. The new shelter at the food centre opened quickly to ensure those people were not left outside during the coldest time of the year.  

"We're looking to make sure people do have a warm place to stay," said Lindsay Turner, the poverty reduction director for Nunavut's Department of Family Services.

"We can all acknowledge a hospital waiting room is not a shelter," she said.

The Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit no longer allows people to stay in the waiting room overnight. The change created an urgent need for a shelter that accepts people who are intoxicated. (David Gunn/CBC)

'We have to care,' says MLA  

Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak has been calling on the territorial government to establish a wet shelter in Iqaluit for years.

Angnakak said she first recognized the need for a wet shelter a few years ago, when a social worker came to her asking for help for a woman who was addicted to alcohol and was not allowed to stay at the women's shelter.

Being drunk shouldn't bar a person from getting help, especially when the wind chill make it feel as cold as -55 outside, said Angnakak.

"They're still somebody's brother or husband or father or grandfather. These are people. We can't just say 'too bad, we can't help you,'" she said. "We have to care."

Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak has been calling for a wet shelter since she was first elected to the Legislative Assembly. She says this new shelter will benefit Iqaluit's homeless. (David Gunn/CBC)

A warm place to stay during the winter

The new shelter at the food centre will open during the evenings around 8 p.m., Turner said. People wishing to stay there may be intoxicated, but they will not be allowed to drink or use drugs at the facility. They will also have to follow a set of safety rules.

Staff with the newly-formed Inuksuk Guardians Society will run the shelter.

For now, the plan is to run the shelter through the winter as a temporary stop-gap, but Turner said she hopes for a permanent solution.  

"The important thing right now is that there is a warm space, it is a temporary space," she said. "It's not a giant space either, but it's adding extra capacity to keep people out of the cold."

With files from Rachel Zelniker