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'I feel really happy': Yellowknife's homeless take pride in new employment program

Homeless people in Yellowknife are gaining a sense of pride for a hard day's work, thanks to an employment program offered by the Yellowknife Women's Society.

8 homeless people given work daily through pilot program run by Yellowknife Women’s Society

Participants of Yellowknife's Common Ground pilot program are employed to clean up garbage from city streets and trails — including outside the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, on the Frame Lake Trail and around the legislature. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Homeless people in Yellowknife are gaining a sense of pride for a hard day's work, thanks to a new employment program in the city.

The City of Yellowknife launched the Common Ground pilot program two weeks ago. It's run by the Yellowknife Women's Society.

Each day, it gives eight homeless people work cleaning garbage from the city's streets and trails.

"It makes me feel good to do something," said Christopher Michel, who has been working for Common Ground since it launched. 

Christopher Michel said he's been living on the street since he was a kid. He began working with Common Ground when the program was launched two weeks ago. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

The 39-year-old said he's been living on the street since he was a kid.

"I don't drink as much as usual. I've been an alcoholic since I was 19," he said. "Every time I wake up in the morning I feel really happy and I got this job. I just go for it, so it's pretty good for me."

Participants work from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Eight homeless people — or individuals who don't have stable housing — are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis to work every day.

They make minimum wage and receive a paycheque from the Yellowknife Women's Society every two weeks. The program is open to both men and women.

Michael Fatt is the program's co-ordinator. He was homeless for more than five years.

Michael Fatt is the co-ordinator of the Common Ground pilot program. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

He said when you're out on the street, there's nothing to do and the program is a solution. 

"We have something to do, get out of the way. [It] keeps my mind out of the clouds," he said. "And [it] keeps me away from drugs and alcohol, which I had a bad problem with for a long time because I had nothing to do."

Robert Abel is using this work as an opportunity to reflect on his life. The 55-year-old said he's been drinking since he was eight, and has done "a lot of bad things" in his life.

"I just want to give back to society. I feel proud when I see garbage and I pick it up," he said. "Right now I'm thinking about life, trying to sober up, trying to get a place with my first paycheque."

Michel, meanwhile, is hoping to put his income toward a new wardrobe.

Robert Abel is using this work as an opportunity to reflect on his life. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

The city gave the Yellowknife Women's Society $100,000 to run the program until the end of September. The money comes from the city's Downtown Development Reserve — meaning change from parking meters is paying for the program.

"The overall goal is to turn this pilot funding into something that provides a lasting means for individuals experiencing homelessness to access employment," said the society's executive director, Bree Denning.

Denning said she hopes Common Ground can find corporate sponsors to help keep it running.

If the program continues, Denning wants to expand its work to things like leaf cleanup on private property and snow shovelling in the winter.

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