Four years after fire consumed YWCA NWT’s Rockhill family housing complex, a replacement facility is nearing completion.
Former executive director Lyda Fuller had pledged a new building would open on that timeline after the fire, which destroyed a 33-unit emergency and transitional housing complex.
The new structure, on Yellowknife’s 54 Street, is a hive of activity. Organizers hope to hand over keys to 21 families by August.
“This is the space where residents will be able to come and talk to staff during business hours, eat meals, take skills and job training workshops… where youth can come to GirlSpace and Dudes Club,” said Kate Reid, YWCA NWT’s president, gesturing around the first floor of the new building.
“These are the things we’ve been missing for the last four years.”
Reid says staff still carry the weight of everything that went up in smoke in October 2018. Seventy-eight people lost their homes in the fire and, for years afterward, connecting vulnerable Yellowknifers to supports like counselling and trauma recovery became harder.
“When someone is in crisis, it’s painful to have to send them all over town to access services,” said Reid.
Now, all the resources they need will be an elevator away.
“Staff are over the moon, just elated.”
Reid joined the YWCA in 2021, when the charity was just beginning fundraising efforts for a new facility.
“To have it happen so quickly? It’s amazing,” she said.
This was her first time seeing the colour-coded entryways and accent walls, a design idea that came from YWCA staff. They imagined bright colours could serve as a wayfinding tool for kids in a new environment, and help the space feel less institutional.
“It’s like walking in a dream state, you’re just touching all the walls and saying to yourself, is this real?”
Between 2021 and 2023, the organization received $12.5 million from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation toward the project, $5 million from the City of Yellowknife, and $50,000 from the Yellowknife Community Foundation. YWCA NWT contributed $700,000 of its own, and the land for the project.
The building exceeds energy efficiency standards, includes accessibility features and is “as solid as a bomb shelter,” according to a passing engineer. The $18-million building is being constructed by Clark Builders and was designed by Next Architecture’s Vince Barter.
“It was definitely a deal,” said Reid. “We’ve been treated exceptionally well.”
The new facility stands on what was once a parking lot beside Lynn’s Place, the YWCA women’s shelter.
“It was always our hope and dream to expand here,” said Reid.
While the structure is coming together, there’s a way to go before the building is move-in ready. The YWCA is only $70,000 toward the estimated $250,000 goal needed to furnish each unit.
The charity has launched an online gift registry where donors can select items families need to purchase and peruse various incentives. The initiative is part of a Welcome Home campaign that organizers hope will raise enough to outfit each apartment with everything from appliances to bedsheets.
Executive director Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay was away in Ottawa lobbying lawmakers to help end gender-based violence as Cabin Radio toured the facility. Dumbuya-Sesay has previously stated she believes the new housing complex will be particularly important for women and children who are in unsafe situations.
“The lack of affordable housing for families and for women leaving an abusive relationship is at crisis levels across the territory, and we’re seeing an unprecedented level of people coming to us who are staying in unsuitable or unsafe housing because they have nowhere else to go,” Dumbuya-Sesay said during the project’s first funding campaign.
“This building will help to fill a crucial housing gap by providing affordable, supportive housing for women and their children.”
While the yet-to-be-named facility will provide life-changing security to families, Reid said the selection process includes difficult decisions “associated with need, urgency, and length of time of our wait list.”
“I can tell you that demand far outstrips these 21 units,” she said.
The YWCA has more than 150 families on that list, all hoping to move into a facility just like this one.
“In the meantime, they work with landlords in town, help with arrears,” said Reid.
“I don’t think people are fully aware of the scope of what the Y does every day. Basically, whatever it takes to keep as many people as possible happy and healthy and housed and safe.”