North·In Depth

Should the N.W.T. gov't build a $6M sobering centre in downtown Yellowknife?

The Northwest Territories government wants to commit an estimated $6 million to a new permanent day shelter and sobering centre in downtown Yellowknife. One nearby business owner says it's a bad idea.

'I am not prepared to put my staff through [that],' says business owner near proposed site

Klaus Schoenne in front of his downtown True Value Hardware store. He predicts a growth in unease and violence if a sobering centre and day shelter is built across the street. 'I am not prepared to put my staff through [that],' Schoenne said. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The Northwest Territories government is looking to award a contract worth an estimated $6 million to design and build a new day shelter and sobering centre in downtown Yellowknife, but a business owner near the proposed location says it's a bad idea.

The request for proposals for a "Wellness and Recovery Centre" was released July 9.

The new centre, according to the document, is "intended to be a more permanent home" for programs now found at the day shelter and sobering centre opened in 2018 in a leased building.

It's to be built on 5019 – 51st Street, on an empty lot near the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre. CBC first reported on plans to develop that location in May

Business owner objects

In an open letter addressed to Yellowknife media, the territorial government and the City of Yellowknife, Klaus Schoenne, who owns Yellowknife True Value Hardware, said he's still waiting to be consulted about the project. He also has concerns about the selection process for the lot.

He said previous emails he sent to government departments expressing concern over the site's location have "fallen on deaf ears."

Schoenne said he supports the idea of a rehab or recovery centre, but not a new shelter that brings with it the unease and violence at times felt at the sobering and day shelter one street over from his store.

He said he'd close down the hardware store before he'd subject his staff to the kind of mistreatment he says happens at business in close proximity to the existing shelter.

"I am not prepared to put my staff through [that]," Schoenne said.

The government wants to build the new center on a lot near the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre on 51st Street. (Walter Strong/CBC)

In his recent letter, Schoenne said the territory is not being transparent with businesses he says would be affected.

"They have refused to consult, discuss or have any transparency on this facility with adjacent property owners, business owners or the general public as far as I know," Schoenne wrote.

NNSL Media reported this week that several other businesses in the area were never consulted about the project, and received no information about the proposal.

Schoenne said he can "appreciate" that the territorial government owns the property on 51st Street and has done an environmental assessment on it already, but said "this is not a reason to say this is the best location in Yellowknife."

"I would rather see the downtown core with businesses, with housing, than something like the wellness centre behind two liquor establishments [the Gold Range and the Raven Pub]." 

Yellowknife's nearby sobering and day shelter. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Schoenne said the proposed centre would not bring any benefit to Yellowknife's businesses, residents, or tourism industry. 

He cited the 2019 Retail Revitalization Strategy for downtown Yellowknife created by Tate Economic Research Inc. for city council. That report contains feedback from downtown residents, workers and business owners about what they see as challenges to revitalization.

That feedback includes reference to social problems created by the sobering centre, and to how those social problems hinder or prevent downtown commercial revitalization. It also includes feedback asking, "How do we shift it away from downtown?" 

Health Department responds

Health and Social Services communications manager Jeremy Bird said in an email to CBC that Health Minister Julie Green has responded to Schoenne twice by email: once on June 7 and once on July 22.

"We also anticipate going through the City of Yellowknife permitting and development process this fall, at the start of the design phase of this project," Bird said. "Part of the City of Yellowknife's development process will include engagement with the community."

Bird said the department's choice of lot is a balance between "location, cost, size, compliance with building codes for the proposed use, and easy access for clients."

"It's important to locate these types of services and facilities in the area where the need is," Bird said. "Proximity to other related support services — such as overnight shelters, mental health and addiction counselling services, housing and income assistance offices, etc. — was another key factor in the decision to propose a downtown location for this facility."

A man sleeps in a building alcove just outside the Yellowknife's downtown core on April 17, 2020. The Health Department says the proposed location for a new centre strikes a balance between services and clientele. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Bird said the government has learned lessons in its experience with the existing shelter related to public drunkenness and civil disturbance. But the specific strategy for dealing with Schoenne's concerns around those issues won't be available until later in the process.

"The security strategies and safety measures that will be employed at the Wellness and Recovery Centre will be informed by final location and design, current research and best practices, as well as by engagement with service users, neighbours and stakeholders."

Bird said the territorial government acknowledged Schoenne is not alone in his concerns. 

"Mr. Schoenne's concerns highlight many of the complexities that the whole community are experiencing as it relates to addressing the shelter needs in the Northwest Territories."

Warm space, 30 beds

The public request for proposals calls for a new building with about 1,200 square metres of floor space (13,000 square feet).

The sobering centre area would include 30 beds in seven sleeping rooms, and would be open round the clock except for three hours a day in the early morning for cleaning. 

An alternate view of the proposed location for the new wellness centre. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Addressing the large number of people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife has not be easy. 

Last November, the territorial government invoked a state of emergency to establish a second shelter in Yellowknife, which could accommodate people under pandemic restrictions. 

The state of emergency allowed the government to overrule the City of Yellowknife's refusal to authorize using the Side Door building as a temporary shelter. The city had rejected the idea after getting feedback from neighbouring businesses.

The government took the unusual step after looking at 26 other properties that turned out to be unsuitable, or were owned by people who were unwilling to house a day shelter on their property.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited to state the request for proposals was public. A previous version of this story said it was by invitation only.
    Jul 23, 2021 1:33 PM CT

With files from Amy Tucker

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