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In some N.W.T. communities, answering a knock at the door in the night could save a life

It’s not unusual for overnight winter temperatures in the Northwest Territories to drop below –30 C. There are homeless people across the territory who manage to live through such harsh conditions, but others who perish.

'Safe houses' popping up in places where shelter space is limited

Muriel Betsina, 73, at her home in N'dilo, N.W.T. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

In communities across the Northwest Territories, there are people who listen for a nighttime knock at their doors. They know it could mean someone is hoping to escape a frigid winter night.

When Georgina Jacobson-Masuzumi hears the knock, she always opens the door at her Tuktoyaktuk home.

“You never turn away anybody in a storm,” says Georgina Jacobson-Masuzumi about why her house becomes a safe house at night. “That’s not part of our culture.” (Submitted by Georgina Jacobson-Masuzumi)

"You never turn away anybody in a storm," she said. "That's not part of our culture."

It's not unusual for overnight winter temperatures in the Northwest Territories to drop below –30 C. There are homeless people across the territory who manage to live through such harsh conditions, but others who perish.

According to the N.W.T. coroner's annual report, there were 37 deaths between 2002 and 2016 from cold exposure in the Northwest Territories. In almost every case, alcohol was also a factor.

Jacobson-Masuzumi calls her home a "safehouse," adding RCMP also use her as a resource — officers sometimes bring people to her house who have nowhere to go, but aren't intoxicated enough to put in jail.

Jacobson-Masuzumi said there is a shelter for women and children in the community, but the men don't have any options.

She has yet to turn away anybody who shows up at her door, because she says it would be "cruel and unusual" to do so. She lets people stay the night and sober up, and then makes sure they have somewhere to go when they leave in the morning.

'If you have a knife can I have it?'

In Ndilo, a small community attached to Yellowknife, Muriel Betsina also has an open-door policy — but with a few more rules.

She asks guests to hand over any weapons, such as knives, before they stay the night.

"I always say, 'If you have a knife can I have it,'" she said, adding she keeps the items in a lock box until the guests leave.

Betsina said if someone knocking on her door is too intoxicated for her to handle, she lets them in for some food, but calls the RCMP to pick them up.

"I don't want nobody to freeze or to lose their hands or their arms," she said. "So I open my door."

RCMP spokesperson Marie-York Condon stated in an email that if people "feel their safety, or the safety of others, is compromised, or someone is in need of assistance, they should contact local emergency services."

Scott Young, detachment commander for Behchoko RCMP, said he's had people knock on his door in the middle of the night asking for a place to sleep or to be put in a jail cell.

But he's not allowed to put someone in jail because they have nowhere to go.

"It's heartbreaking to turn somebody away during those times," said Scott.

That's why he helped bring the first warming shelter into Behchoko, which opened in March.

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