Nunavut shelter says vulnerable people should be kept out of jail cells

An advocate says those facing homelessness or addiction issues need to be kept out of jail cells and instead brought to a shelter.

'We walk a line to make sure that the RCMP do not infringe upon the civil liberties of the homeless'

Laurel McCorriston, executive director of Uquutaq Society, says there's a culture of 'trampling' on the rights of people who are homeless within Nunavut law enforcement. (Travis Burke/CBC)

An advocate says those facing homelessness or addiction issues need to be kept out of jail cells and instead brought to a shelter.

"When you provide shelter services, we walk a line to make sure that the RCMP do not infringe upon the civil liberties of the homeless," said Laurel McCorriston, the executive director of Iqaluit's Uquutaq Society.

The society runs the Iqaluit men's shelter and a low-barrier, 17-cot overnight shelter.

Her comments follow an incident of police violence in Kinngait earlier this month, where a man who appeared to be intoxicated was captured on video being hit by the door of a police vehicle.

The man was arrested and put in a cell, where he was later beaten up by another intoxicated man, because the cells that night were overcrowded, according to police.

CBC spoke with the society about its efforts to create alternative spaces for people who are publicly intoxicated, so they don't wind up in cells. 

People need shelter to rest and sleep

People struggling with an addiction are even more vulnerable to run-ins with police when they don't have a home, McCorriston said.

"Why do people end up in cells? There's nowhere else for them to go," she said, answering her own question.

At night, someone who is homeless and inebriated might be picked up by police, or they might stay in a shack, tent or foyer, she said, adding that in the winter, "they may end up freezing."

McCorriston says police cells aren't the answer to helping people through intoxication or addiction — what people need is respite.

This is a systemic issue, not an individual issue.- Laurel McCorriston, executive director of Uquutaq Society

That's a place to safely rest and sleep it off, she said. And a change in public attitude.

"It's a loving compassionate view that says 'what can we do to help them' instead of this idea of eradicating or this idea of 'put them off in a cell,' or punish people," she said.

"This is a systemic issue, not an individual issue."

Anyone can use the low-barrier overnight shelter — men or women, sober or not, compared to other shelters where people have to be sober to stay, or use the food centre or day programming in town.

The society believes there has been an increased need for the low-barrier shelter since 2017, when access to alcohol became easier due to the opening of a beer and wine store in Iqaluit. According to a Nunavut Government report on the store published in June, the men's shelter turned away 254 people in 2019 because of intoxication, compared to only 90 people in 2018. 

McCorriston says she'd still like to see a managed alcohol program in Iqaluit, and more front-line physical and mental health support for the homeless.

For now, the Uquutaq Society is working to open new kinds of accessible housing this fall — both transitional living units and affordable housing.

CBC has contacted the RCMP and asked for comment on this story, and whether they will work with the low-barrier shelter and bring people there.

In Nunavut, treatment facility is 5 years away

An addictions treatment centre is still five years away from opening in Nunavut.

But the project doesn't cover front-line services or emergency response related to addictions. It will be a place people can go to heal from addictions and trauma.

Yellowknife's sobering and day shelter. Yellowknife police can bring people to the 27-bed sobering centre, instead of bringing them to a cell. (Walter Strong/CBC)

A health report from 2018 says the centre will have 32 beds and treatment will last 42 days on average.

People will be able to bring their children. This summer health staff will run small scale interviews, to replace community consultation sessions planned before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department is also working to start an on-the-land addictions healing program in Clyde River and Rankin Inlet, similar to one run in Cambridge Bay.

"We can't just import something, this needs to be a made-in-Nunavut solution that is grounded in Inuit ways of knowing and being, but also at the same time informed by clinical best practices," says Jakob Gearheard, executive director of the Nunavut Recovery Centre for the Department of Health.

After consultations and once the capital project is approved through the legislature, a design contract will go out, in the spring of 2022. Centre doors are set to open in 2025.

Gearheard, who prior to this role worked for 16 years with the Ilisaqsivik Society in Clyde River, said the project remains on schedule.

Yellowknife sobering centre keeps people out of cells

In neighbouring N.W.T., a sobering centre and day shelter in Yellowknife is a few years ahead with similar outreach work, and have seen it create change in the community, says Denise McKee, executive director for the NWT Disabilities Council.

"These are people who are experiencing lifetime trauma and have multiple disabilities," McKee said.

"We should be supporting people no differently than we would be supporting someone who was in a wheelchair."

Yellowknife police can also bring people to the 27-bed sobering centre, instead of bringing them to a cell. Another community group runs a van that can pick people up. The centre has medical staff on site.

McKee says the focus is on public safety, and sometimes that looks like managed alcohol or clean needles.

"We had to do a lot of public awareness and education around it, that it wasn't a treatment facility — it was a place where people in their addiction are able to come," she said.

"It was creating a safer environment so people aren't left out on the street."