Yellowknife shelters worried about 'critical issue' of COVID-19 capacity limits in winter

This year, it will be harder than usual to find a spot to sleep at shelters in the city, as they have limited capacity due to COVID-19-related public health orders.

As temperatures drop below zero, shelters prepare for first full winter in COVID-19

Adolf Hakuluk says he is worried about others who are experiencing homelessness as the cold weather quickly approaches the city with limited shelter space due to COVID-19. (Danielle d'Entremont/ CBC)

Adolf Hakuluk has spent about 10 winters living on the streets of Yellowknife, and almost every year he has to spend some of those nights sleeping outside in the cold.

"I try Sally Ann but sometimes they don't let me stay there so I have to walk around … because they get full."

He says he always finds somewhere to sleep in the cold winters, whether it's a stairwell or someone opening their doors.

"Can't do anything about it," he says as he shrugs. "You just gotta do what you gotta do."

Temperatures in the territory have already been dipping below zero, and last winter they went down to -43.8 C without windchill in Yellowknife. 

This year, it will be harder than usual to find a spot to sleep at shelters in the city, as they have limited capacity due to COVID-19-related public health orders.

The Salvation Army men's emergency shelter capacity was reduced when the pandemic hit, from around 49 to 24. They were able to open up some church space as well to allow for about 10 more people to stay overnight. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Worst case scenario 'unacceptable'

Jason Brinson, executive director of the Salvation Army, is worried about the safety and wellbeing of people who might get turned away due to the limited space at the men's emergency shelter this winter. 

"I'm concerned that with the restrictions that we have in place to keep our staff and service users safe. Where we send people when our shelter is full. That's my primary concern."

"If we turn someone away ... worst case scenario, that they've passed away because of exposure, that's unacceptable to us."

He said he is looking to have conversations with the city and other NGOs to "ensure that nobody is left out in the cold in the winter time" and that they are safe.

The Yellowknife sobering centre also had to reduce capacity, but was able to make more spaces available and is now down three spots. The day shelter capacity was significantly reduced to a maximum of 20 people, down from 40 or more before the pandemic. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Limited capacity a 'critical issue'

Denise McKee, executive director of the N.W.T. Disabilities Council, which runs the day shelter and sobering centre downtown, said the council has been "raising the alarm" about this "critical issue" for months now.

"We along with the other NGOs … are very concerned due to the reduction in numbers that our shelters are able to accommodate, that there will be people displaced during this period of time."

The day shelter capacity was significantly reduced to meet public health guidelines.

"Now we're getting into the cold weather and really we've had a pretty mild fall. So we haven't even seen the numbers that we're going to see," said McKee.

Another issue caused by the pandemic, she said, is the fact that people will no longer be able to find shelter by couch surfing or staying at a friend's house as easily as they sometimes used to when there was no space in the shelters.

"What we need to be doing is preplanning better," said McKee. "We can't continuously kind of wait until we're in a crisis and then try to solve it as we're sitting in it."

Denise McKee is executive director of the N.W.T. disabilities council. She says the council has been 'raising the alarm' about this issue for months now. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Damien Healy, a spokesman for the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services, told CBC in an email that the territorial government is working with sheltering organizations to stay on top of current needs "particularly during the pandemic so that adequate spaces are provided."

"The GNWT has had discussions with shelter providers about the potential to expand overnight shelter operations for the COVID[-19] period," said Healy.

On Thursday, the territorial government identified a potential location for a temporary day shelter, after a previous location was rejected earlier this summer.

"We are always concerned when winter arrives and adequate shelter space isn't available. We have been working with the City of Yellowknife for many months trying to find a solution," said Healy.

Healy noted that shelters have also been supported recently to take a housing-focused approach where appropriate.

The City of Yellowknife said in an email that it works with all its partners to address homelessness in the city. City clerk Debbie Gillard said the city established the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness to determine how to allocate federal funding from various programs and services. 

She said the city also funds the Street Outreach Program and the Homelessness Employment programs, through contracts with the Yellowknife Women's Society.

Hakuluk says he is prepared to take on another Yellowknife winter, even if the shelters reach capacity. (Randall McKenzie / CBC)

As these conversations continue, Hakuluk says he isn't too worried about himself but he just wants to ensure that others who are experiencing homelessness are staying warm.

He has been buying hats, mittens and warm clothing this week and handing it out to people who need them.

"It's getting cold but I'm OK," said Hakuluk. "They're vulnerable too. [I worry about] them passing out outside."