Yellowknife sobering centre opens doors as street outreach program begins

The City of Yellowknife’s temporary sobering centre and related street outreach program began operations on Monday.

Deeply needed services will help city’s most vulnerable says Mark Heyck, Yellowknife mayor

Tents lined up in the Yellowknife Community Arena on July 17. The facility will serve as the city's temporary sobering centre. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi)

A temporary sobering centre opened on Monday in the Yellowknife Community Arena.

The sobering centre, in conjunction with a mobile outreach unit that started patrolling the streets on Monday as well, will offer shelter to those who want an indoor space to sober up.

It's a spartan setup inside the arena. Large camping tents are set up to accommodate up to 28 people. The tents are lined up in two rows, with a men's section and a women's section. Each tent sleeps two with room to spare. A material divider separates one guest from the other.

Inside a sobering centre tent, a foam mat and tarp on the concrete floor. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi)

For health and safety concerns, there are no sheets or blankets; just a sleeping pad and tarp. The tents are on the arena's bare concrete surface.

After an intake screening to identify anyone who may need more acute care, patrons are directed to a designated tent. Those who stay the entire night are woken up at about 5 a.m., given a breakfast bag of dry goods and sent on their way.

The early wake-up call is designed to have people out the door by 6 a.m., when service at the downtown day shelter begins.

The Yellowknife Community Arena is the short-term sobering centre for the City of Yellowknife. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Addressing a deep need in the community

At a public media event for the centre's opening on Monday, Mayor Mark Heyck said there are many "very vulnerable citizens in our community ... deeply, deeply in need of the sobering centre services and street outreach services."

Heyck hopes the street outreach program — run by the Yellowknife Women's Society — and the sobering centre will reduce strain on city emergency responders who have seen a steady increase in calls for service related to assisting severely intoxicated people in the city.

Emergency responders in downtown Yellowknife. Calls for service have been up since RCMP stopped responding to public intoxication calls. (Walter Strong/CBC)

"We've seen massive growth," Heyck said. "The idea here is to provide the appropriate levels of service for the situation."

After an RCMP policy change in 2015, paramedics began responding to calls for severe public intoxication that RCMP may have previously responded to. Recently, the city said this was because RCMP are not trained to identify underlying medical conditions that may present as intoxication.

This resulted in up to 2,000 extra calls for ambulance service in 2016 compared to previous years, Heyck said, putting pressure on the city's already strained fire department, which provides city ambulance services.

A city spokesperson said every ambulance call costs just under $1,100 in cases of full cost recovery. The city does not keep track of the number of ambulance call-outs specific to severe intoxication, but 2,000 extra calls per year amounts to approximately $2.2 million dollars in extra costs.

The city has budgeted $100,000 for the street outreach program, which will take it through to the end of December. The RCMP have donated a van for outreach workers to use. The territorial government has budgeted $900,000 for sobering centre staff and program operations, although the government said the final cost of the program will not be known until its design is complete and a long-term sobering centre facility has been identified. 

Although the street outreach program is funded through to the end of December, the temporary sobering centre will close on September 15 to make way for the arena's return to public winter use.

The territorial government continues to look for a permanent home for the sobering centre.

"We are working aggressively to find a permanent location where we can have the day shelter services and the sobering center services located in one building," said Debbie DeLancey, deputy minister of Health and Social Services.

"We're very hopeful we will have an announcement early August about a permanent option, but it would be premature to say anything at this time."

With files from Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi and Priscilla Hwang