Former downtown bar pegged as new location for Yellowknife sobering centre

Yellowknife's sobering centre could soon be moving to a downtown building that was formerly a bar called the Right Spot.

MLA says some people not happy about the downtown location, but it's 'the right place' for the centre

Julie Green, MLA for Yellowknife Centre, stands in front of the proposed location for the new sobering centre and day shelter. (Mitchel Wiles/CBC)

Yellowknife's sobering centre could soon be moving to a downtown building that was once a notorious bar called the Right Spot.

The location on 50th Street, beside the Northern Lites Motel and across the street from the Northern News Services newspaper office, would also house a day shelter for homeless people.

Ironically, however, the centre could find itself homeless for a while.

Described as a safe space for intoxicated people to recuperate, the sobering centre has been temporarily housed since July at the Yellowknife arena, but it needs to be out of that spot by Friday to make room for other programming.

The proposal to use the former Right Spot building must still be approved by the city, and council isn't set to review it until Sept. 25.

If the move is OK'd, the building will need to undergo significant renovations and upgrades that could take months, Health Minister Glen Abernethy said at a public meeting Monday evening.

In the meantime, his department hopes to work with the city to find another temporary location.

Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, said that could also take a while. 

"It's going to be difficult to locate a place because they have looked very hard for space for the sobering centre and it hasn't been easy to find. Finding something on short notice is going to be very challenging," she said, adding that gaps in service would be a concern.

"I don't want to see any break in service. I also don't want to see the people hired to offer the safe ride program and the sobering centre program to be laid off for an indeterminate period of time," said Green.

"I am a little concerned people will go back to Stanton hospital as the primary drop off."

Abernethy said the new location — most recently occupied by a graphics and printing company that relocated elsewhere — was chosen after assessing 22 potential sites. It was brought to their attention by Bruce Valpy, publisher at Northern News Services, which owns the property.

Valpy says it seemed like a good fit as a shelter, so he suggested it to the government and the two sides recently signed a five-year agreement.

The 4,750-square-foot space would enable the day shelter to accommodate up to 40 clients while the sobering centre could handle 26 (men and women will be housed in separately designated spaces).

Downtown location 'is the right place'

​Valpy has heard some people and businesses in the area are wary of the plan but believes having the centre downtown is the best way to get at the heart of the problem and help the most people.

That, in turn, that will improve the area for everyone.

"The problem is downtown so you have to fix the problem downtown," Valpy said. "We're going to be right here beside it and as a news organization we'll be watching it closely."

Green also believes the downtown is the right place and she is "thrilled" about the proposal.

"This is a harm reduction program — it is not a treatment program — so we are trying to meet people where they are at and they are here. They are here because the liquor store is here and the services and the shelters where they live are here," she said.

"This is the right place for this service although I realize that there are people who are not going to be happy about it because they live here and they don't want to share this space with people who are intoxicated. But we are a small place, there are only a certain amount of places that this service is viable."

​Lydia Bardak with Yellowknife's Street Outreach Program, which offers safe rides to the sobering centre and shelters, said a downtown sobering centre will be much more effective in reaching those who need help.

"We might actually be able to increase our capacity … because a certain amount of our day is taken up by that drive down Franklin Avenue [to the arena]," she said.

This is a harm reduction program — it is not a treatment program — so we are trying to meet people where they are at and they are here.- MLA Julie Green

"Having the sobering centre downtown means that we could come and go in a much shorter time frame. And maybe be able to spot or find people sooner, or find more people."

Even if the sobering centre is unavailable for a stretch of time, Bardak added, the impact on their services and staff would not be significant.

About 30 per cent of the program's drop-offs are at the sobering centre, but it's not the only shelter around. The main change, said Bardak, would be the hours — the sobering centre closes later than the other shelters.

"If there was no sobering centre for a period of time, it means we really wouldn't have a place to take the guys after 11 p.m.," Bardak said.

It operates from from 1 p.m. until 6 a.m. but daily intake ends around 2 a.m.

The women's centre still accepts women at that hour, though.

With files from Mitchel Wiles