Yukon gov't promises 'noticeable changes' to territory's largest shelter

A move toward 'harm reduction' is being pledged as the Yukon government prepares to take over the Salvation Army's Centre of Hope in Whitehorse. New details announced Tuesday include a commitment to allow intake 24/7 and double available beds.

Government says it will keep doors open 24/7 and nearly double capacity

Workers remove the Salvation Army sign from Whitehorse's Centre of Hope on Jan. 25. The Yukon government says the shelter 'will operate as a low-barrier shelter based on harm reduction principles.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Yukon government is indicating it will be more accommodating of clients when it takes control of the former Salvation Army shelter in Whitehorse.

In a statement from Yukon's department of Health and Social Services issued Tuesday, the government says it plans to run the facility as a "low-barrier shelter based on harm-reduction principles."

In social services circles, "low-barrier" and "harm-reduction" shelters sometimes refer to shelters that allow intoxicated clients.

The Salvation Army used to have a policy demanding people be sober to be granted shelter, but the organization relaxed that policy as part of a nationwide shift in 2015.

Despite the rule change, some advocates argued the Salvation Army in Whitehorse remained too strict.

The territorial government will assume responsibility of the Whitehorse emergency shelter, formerly known as the Centre of Hope, on Thursday.

The government said it would take over the shelter from the Salvation Army after a series of complaints about sub-par services.

The government's proposed changes to the shelter include:

  • Keeping its doors open 24 hours a day;
  • Adding 20 new shelter mats to supplement the current 25 shelter beds;
  • Allowing clients to stay longer in shelter dorm rooms.

The press release says some Salvation Army employees will stay on temporarily, but it does not specify how many. There are about 45 positions at the shelter.

It also pledges "a number of other operational changes that will be phased in during the month of February, as the staff  team settle into their new roles."

'I think it's changing for the better, it means we'll get more help for the treatment for the people that need help' said a client who identified herself as Annette. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

CBC spoke to a number of shelter clients and is not using the full names of some to protect their privacy.

One client, who identified herself as Annette, said she is hopeful about the change.

"I think it's changing for the better. It means we'll get more help for the treatment for the people that need help, rather than just brushing it under the carpet," she said outside the shelter on Friday.

"I think that it means our street life, seeing people wandering the streets on a daily basis, is finally going to come to a stop."

Intoxication and safety a concern 

Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation has criticized the Salvation Army for turning clients away.  She supports a more accommodating shelter based on harm-reduction principles.

Shelter clients who spoke with CBC in recent weeks have expressed mixed views.

One client, Bruce Waugh, said the Salvation Army staff are too strict and kick people out too often. He said they lack empathy for people with addictions.

Others said a permissive attitude on intoxication has led to chaos.

One man who identified himself as Walking Wolf told CBC on Friday that people who were intoxicated at the shelter contributed to fights, robberies, substance use and bullying, which he said occured daily at the building.

"It is an unsafe environment" he said, adding he hoped the Yukon government would hire security guards to help keep the peace.