Home Base Yellowknife evacuees fishing in Zama City. Photo: Tammy Roberts
A Yellowknife-based organization that supports unhoused youth has evacuated to Zama City, Alberta, with at least 19 youth, nine staff and two social workers, among others.
At this new location, Home Base Yellowknife is continuing to provide vital services to youth, including mental health and addictions counselling, executive director Tammy Roberts told Cabin Radio.
Home Base Yellowknife normally provides housing and support in the city to vulnerable youth aged 12 to 24. Approximately 96 percent of the organization’s youth are Indigenous and more than two-thirds are female, according to a Home Base press release.
Although an evacuation order was issued for Yellowknife on Wednesday, August 16, Roberts said Home Base Yellowknife decided to leave before the order was announced that day.
The organization, which has an evacuation committee, had been preparing for some time, she said.
“As things intensified within the city and the media and the talk around town, and as we started to gather our evacuation team together and discuss it more, it came apparent to me that we needed to leave,” she said.
According to Roberts, leaving sooner rather than later was necessary for dealing with the challenges of gathering youth – and organizing staff to be able to support them.
“A lot of our staff do have their own families and had to coordinate getting their own families to a safe place,” she said.
“A lot of the youth that access our programs have experienced homelessness, so they do have a connection to the streets of Yellowknife, and sometimes finding them is a bit of a challenge.”
In fact, Roberts said the team initially couldn’t find a few people.
“Because of that, I did stay behind to try and make sure that those youth were found, which we were successful in doing,” she said, adding the team didn’t want the youth in the general group heading south since finding them there would be extremely challenging.
‘Really happy’ in Zama City
An additional challenge for the Home Base team, according to Roberts, was managing the evacuation’s impact on a population that has repeatedly been displaced.
Roberts said many of the people the organization supports come from the foster care system, where constant, unplanned disruptions are common and damaging. The team wanted to make sure this disruption was planned.
“We informed youth of what was going on along the way. We were very organized in creating teams, so that we had staff members that were familiar to the youth leading a team and trying to do the best we could that way,” she said.
On August 16, the team started its journey with 19 youth, nine staff, two NWT health authority social workers and two dogs, loaded into five vehicles. They headed to Fort Providence, where they spent the night on the floor of the community’s youth centre.
Roberts said the youth centre in Fort Providence was also opened to the public, to use the washroom, making it a “very chaotic space.”
Looking for a calmer, more secure location, the following day the group drove to Zama City, Alberta, a small oil and gas work camp about 80 kilometres northwest of High Level. Roberts, still in Yellowknife at this point, had identified the space as an option with help from the health authority.
Roberts later joined the group in Zama, along with an additional youth, three dogs and a kitten.
Roberts described the camp as a series of trailers stuck together.
“They have small rooms that have a bed, TV, desk, a bathroom. And then there’s a communal kitchen that has phenomenal food,” she said.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever travelled with teenagers that are hungry – it’s not very pleasant,” she said, laughing. At the camp, Roberts said the group is being provided three meals a day and snacks.
“We’re really, really happy here,” she said.
Home Base Yellowknife is working on continuing programming in Zama City, according to Roberts.
“We have our mental health and addiction counselor with us,” she said. “We’re also doing lots of fun stuff.”
Roberts said Zama City has provided the group with access to a gym and a library. There is outdoor space that has a swimming pond as well as a stocked fishing pond. “So the kids are fishing catch-and-release rainbow trout,” she said.
In addition, the organization has set up a schedule for youth to walk the evacuated dogs so they can learn to earn an allowance. Movie nights are also being organized.
According to Roberts, some of the comments Home Base Yellowknife staff have heard from youth so far made her stop and think about how little they have back home.
“One comment that a staff member heard from one of our youth was: ‘This is the first time in my life I’ve ever had my own bedroom,'” she said.
Roberts said others have commented on things they wished they had in Yellowknife, and how the camp is a place they would like to live. Having staff available 24/7 to help youth in decision-making has also made them more settled and more successful, according to Roberts.
“This experience is opening our eyes as to what our youth actually need,” she said of the evacuation. “That’s something that the organization will be pushing for in the future.”