City council must find a day shelter location before winter, say concerned Yellowknifers

A group of concerned Yellowknife residents are urging city council to open an emergency day shelter before winter after the city rejected a proposal to open one in the SideDoor building last month.

Proposal to open day shelter at SideDoor Centre was rejected last month

A file photo of downtown Yellowknife. A group of concerned citizens in the city says council needs to work with the territorial government to find a place for a day shelter before winter. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

A group of concerned Yellowknife residents are urging city council to work with the territorial government to open an emergency day shelter before winter after the city rejected a potential site for it last month.

The group sent out an open letter that outlines seven calls to action which include that the city reconsiders SideDoor building as an option or another downtown location.

It also wants the city to acknowledge that a space is required since COVID-19 gathering restrictions mean many people won't be able to access the current day-shelter as the weather drops. Rao said so far, over 200 people have joined the concerned citizens Facebook group and signed the open letter. 

"Winter is coming up pretty quickly and there's a real need for there to be an emergency day shelter space," said Neesha Rao, interim executive director for the Yellowknife Women's Society and one of the people behind the letter.

Earlier in the summer, the N.W.T. government had applied to lease the bottom floor of the former SideDoor Centre for At-Risk Youth on 50 Street — a building which is owned by the city. But council rejected that plan on Aug. 24.

Around the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, 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.

The territory then created a temporary day shelter in the Salvation Army on Franklin Avenue, and kept it open in May when the day shelter reopened so that people would have more space to physically distance. But that agreement ended on July 31.

Now, with colder temperatures on the horizon and more need for people to be inside, Rao says a day shelter must open — and soon.

Earlier this summer, the N.W.T. government had applied to lease the bottom floor of the former SideDoor Centre for At-Risk Youth, pictured here. But council rejected that plan. (CBC)

Absent voices

She added the decision that the city made to reject the SideDoor centre as an option left out the voices of those most integral to the decision — the people who would be using the shelter.

"There was a real absence of a lot of voices that I think really matter and most important," Rao said. The women's shelter was not consulted about the decision either, she said.

"Some of those people are not going to have anywhere to go when the winter happens."

According to city documents, the city delivered a letter to all owners and lessees of property within 30 metres of 4903 50 St., where the day shelter was being considered.

The responses, attached to those documents from the city, were mostly opposed to the plan.

While Rao says the space doesn't have to be at the SideDoor building, it does need to be an available downtown location. She says city council also failed to consider how helping vulnerable people could help the economy.

"I'm a little disappointed that in the middle of a global pandemic, with two of the groups that have been the most vulnerable, which are street-involved folks and also small businesses … to see that the narrative has become about dividing those two groups," she said.

"We have a common interest in working together to strengthen our city."

She says people left out in the cold will be in danger.

"We're talking about, you know, individuals, some of whom are residential school survivors, the children of residential school survivors," she said.

"They have a human right to dignity, a human right to use the bathroom. And I think it's unfortunate that … those ideas didn't come out at the city council meeting."

The letter also mentions the library isn't open — which Rao clarified to mean it's by appointment only.

The group, Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, is circulating the letter among other residents who may also add their signatures.

They are also asking for the issue to go back on city council's agenda at its next meeting. 

Yellowknife mayor Rebecca Alty said the city's zoning rules prevent them from reconsidering the same proposal for six months. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

SideDoor no longer option: mayor

Mayor Rebecca Alty says under the city's zoning laws, SideDoor can't be looked at again as an option for at least another six months or unless the territory comes forward with a new application that addresses the reasons for the refusal. 

Alty also says city staff and the territory are still working on other options which will be coming forward. She added that it's important that the territory is comes forward with a program that includes solutions to some of the issues that were faced when the original day shelter went in.

"I think the key thing is that the city and the [territorial government] are continuing to work on this," Alty said.

"Residents may have concerns because they they can't see staff working on this every day. But I do want to assure that that city staff and [the territorial government] staff are taking this serious." 

Based on an interview by Loren McGinnis, and with files from Katie Toth and Amy Tucker