'I have the most beautiful room in the world': A look inside Yellowknife's COVID-19 isolation centre

The shelter opened on May 4, with funding from the territory's Department of Health and Social Services and contributions from Rio Tinto.

Staff help clients get to appointments, shop for groceries and manage substance use while self-isolating

Clients and staff of the COVID-19 isolation shelter in Yellowknife, located at the old Arnica Inn. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Ricky Thatcher is adamant he wouldn't survive if he contracted COVID-19.

The 65-year-old is recovering from pneumonia, an infection that penetrated deep into both his lungs. He worried it was COVID-19.

"I hope we never get it [again] in Yellowknife. If we do it will kill me," said Thatcher, his voice raspy. 

Up until a few weeks ago he spent his nights sleeping on a mattress on the floor of Yellowknife's Salvation Army shelter. He also struggles with addictions.

Now, he's living at the COVID-19 isolation shelter, located at the old Arnica Inn, in Yellowknife.

"It's been the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me … I have the most beautiful room in the world. I have a fireplace!" he said.

Clients sit outside the COVID-19 isolation shelter in Yellowknife. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Thatcher and 26 others who have experienced some form of homelessness are temporarily calling the shelter home. 

Each has their own private room and supports to help them self-isolate during the pandemic.

The shelter opened on May 4, with funding from the territory's Department of Health and Social Services and contributions from Rio Tinto.

At the time there were five recovered cases of COVID-19 in the N.W.T. — all travel related. 

Fear of second wave

But there's still fear of a second wave and what could happen if the virus makes its way into one of the city's shelters. 

"We were very much building the plane in the air in terms of getting it together," said Bree Denning, Yellowknife Women's Society executive director. 

The shelter staff provide meals, rides to appointments, laundry service, and help getting groceries.

Staff distribute managed doses of alcohol and cannabis to clients to help prevent them from going into withdrawal while self-isolating or leaving to get the substances. 

"Our focus at first was to keep people in place as much as possible," said Denning.  "With Phase 2, COVID[-19] isn't the biggest concern. We also want to help people address their substance use, help them receive health care, help them find recreational activities," Denning said.

There are still no guests allowed in rooms, except for elders who need help from family. The shelter is starting to offer activities like fishing outings, walks, crafts and board games.

Pat Ryan lives at the COVID-19 isolation shelter in Yellowknife. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Pat Ryan, 73, didn't think much about the pandemic when it started. He says he feels supported by shelter staff.

"You ask somebody a question and they just don't walk away like in the big city ... I would like to thank everybody for helping me," he said.

Andrew Sewi also lives at the shelter.

"This place means a lot," he said while getting some fresh air.

"There's programs and you got friends you can talk with and share things that are personal. People don't judge you. The workers are really good," he said.

Ricky Thatcher, left, and Andrew Sewi are clients at the isolation shelter. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

For some, like Clayton, isolation means increased loneliness.

He asked CBC not to use his last name because he doesn't want unwanted visitors. He's nervous about COVID-19.

"It's been lonely and depressing. But it feels safe ... I think all us are at risk for getting corona[virus] if it wasn't for this place."

Medical wing

In one wing of the COVID-19 isolation shelter Dr. Jennifer Harris is getting ready to see clients.

She's a family doctor offering primary care and support to help people manage their substance use, if they choose.

The room has been converted into an outreach space with medical equipment and a privacy curtain.

Dr. Jennifer Harris in a room converted into a medical station. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"People being able to have the ability to have their primary care needs met, have you know the wherewithal to kind of consider where they want to be in terms of their substance use. I think you have to provide these basic necessities to allow people to be able to move forward along their own path."

Yellowknife Women's Society executive director Denning says it's too soon to say what kind of impact the COVID-19 isolation shelter is having on clients. 

There have been challenges such as violence and a break-in from someone who wasn't staying there.

"Some of the most difficult to support individuals that we've experienced who you know have issues with keeping an apartment or not staying in shelters and things like that have been doing fairly well," said Denning.

"I think you know it's still early days," she said.