'Very difficult situation' after City of Yellowknife rejects day shelter plan
N.W.T. government says it’s disappointed in the city's decision
The government of the Northwest Territories is scrambling to find a safe place for Yellowknife's homeless — after city council left bureaucrats in the cold.
The territorial government had applied to lease the bottom floor of the former SideDoor centre for at-risk youth on 50th Street — a building which is owned by the city.
But on Monday, city council rejected a proposal from territorial officials to use the space as a temporary day shelter, pointing to angry letters and complaints from nearby businesses.
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Yellowknife's sobering centre and day shelter locked down for 30 days and became a temporary full-time shelter for a handful of the city's most vulnerable.
That's when the territorial government created a temporary day shelter in the Salvation Army on Franklin Avenue. In May, when the day shelter reopened, the government kept its shelter open as well, so that people would have more space during the day to socialize, eat, and stay dry while physically distancing. But that agreement ended on July 31.
At a public meeting on Monday, before council agreed not to go forward with the territory's proposal, Coun. Niels Konge, said instead of renting a city building, the territorial government should post up a series of tents in a parking lot.
Yellowknife business and property owner Jeannie Rocher said the existence of a shelter this winter would only add to entrepreneurs' "bundle of fears" about their future during COVID-19, suggesting customers would be less interested in coming downtown if people without homes had a place to go nearby.
"You've got the spitting and the vomiting and all the rest of this, and our children dropping their toys in it," she said. "Is it really what we want?"
Rebecca Grooms, a frontline COVID-19 screener at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Camp, which works closely with housing-insecure people, excoriated the municipal government for its decision.
In an interview with CBC she called on the city to reconsider.
"It's very selfish of the city to deny people who have nothing a place to go," said Grooms, who said she has family members and friends on the streets. "It takes a lot of privilege to complain about somebody who has nothing."
Health and Social Services spokesperson Damien Healy wrote in an email to media that the department was "disappointed" with the decision.
"We will need to find a solution before the winter sets in and our vulnerable residents are exposed," wrote Healy.
Right shelter space will be hard to find
Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness, predicts that finding a space for an overflow day shelter won't be easy.
To make that argument, Bardak points to recent history — and the hoops the territory jumped through to open the permanent day shelter in 2018.
"I don't think the [N.W.T. government] has anywhere to turn, because they went through that process only a few years ago," she said.
Bardak says the territorial government went through a multi-year process to find a home for that day shelter, which also operates as a sobering centre (and which is still operating, albeit at a reduced capacity during the pandemic). Hesitant landlords and suspicious businesses were constant obstacles, she remembers, as government staff explored more than 20 properties downtown.
We will need to find a solution before the winter sets in and our vulnerable residents are exposed.- Damien Healy, Health and Social Services
Bardak expects since it was so difficult to find the space that was finally chosen near the Northern Lites motel, it will be equally difficult to find an additional space during the pandemic.
"I think that all the players are in a very, very difficult situation right now."
During the city council meeting Monday, the suggestion was made that a shelter could operate outside the downtown core and they could offer transportation to the space.
Bardak told CBC that could make it harder for people who use the shelter to stay safe.
"My fear is ... if intoxicated people decide to start walking that distance, how risky is that for them?"
Communication murky over COVID-19 obligations
It's unclear whether the territorial government's COVID-19 response team and the people who run the permanent shelter are on the same page.
The territory's COVID-19 response spokesperson Mike Westwick wrote in an email on Aug. 19 that all shelters are considered "essential business" in the Northwest Territories, which means they are allowed to have more than 25 people in an indoor location.
Westwick added that all organizations are encouraged to do as much physical distancing as they can even if they are eligible for an exemption.
Denise McKee, with the NWT Disabilities Council, which runs the permanent day shelter in Yellowknife, said in an email to CBC that in order to meet public health recommendations, the shelter has reduced capacity — and can only let in 20 people at a time.
McKee also wrote that when the territorial government had an additional day shelter at the Salvation Army, the disabilities council rarely had to turn people away. But since that program came to an end, she said the council's day shelter is often at the maximum capacity her group is comfortable with.
"We are turning at least 10 to 15 people away over the course of a day, and on days with poorer weather, this increases," she wrote.
Healy, the health department spokesperson, also said the permanent day shelter couldn't operate at full capacity because of physical distancing requirements.
McKee also said many people who would come to the day shelter are not even bothering to try, because they know that the shelter is often full.