Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence, and contains embedded video depicting violent incidents.
On the evening of April 10, out of desperation, April Desjarlais began uploading videos to Facebook.
A day earlier, she had seen a woman assaulted in the street outside her office – the latest, she says, in a series of near-daily violent incidents on Yellowknife’s 50 Street.
Six months ago, the city’s sobering centre and day shelter moved next-door to the building Desjarlais owns.
Half a year later, she says she cannot take it any more – but feels powerless and has no idea what to do next.
Except for uploading the footage from her security cameras.
One video shows a woman being, in the words of Desjarlais, “choked out.” Another shows a fight in an alleyway, where someone is punched to the ground and then kicked repeatedly.
A third in her collection, this one so far not public, shows a woman who works in the building making her way to her office, only to be punched in the face – out of the blue – by someone passing by, in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
Desjarlais has many more examples as-yet unpublished.
“There will be more to come in the coming days,” read a note on the Facebook page containing the videos, named Yellowknife Day Shelter Neighbours Group.
“I am crying for help,” Desjarlais wrote on her page. “We cannot keep allowing this to happen.”
Over the past four weeks, Cabin Radio has interviewed nearby building owners and tenants, workers at the day shelter and sobering centre, people who use the day shelter, the authorities who run the shelter, the RCMP, the building’s owner, and the city’s mayor.
This is the first of a resulting four-part series exploring an issue Yellowknife has struggled with for years: how to effectively address homelessness and alcoholism in the city’s downtown.
The picture that emerges on 50 Street is of a significant negative impact on the daily lives of those who work there, despite the best efforts of well-meaning government agencies and day shelter staff doing everything they feel they can.
Neighbours of the day shelter feel their safety, and livelihoods, are at risk because of a decision – relocating the shelter – in which they had no part, and could not have foreseen.
Meanwhile, evaluating the success of the day shelter is more complicated. Together with the sobering centre, say those in charge, the twin facilities are getting people off the streets, helping homeless people go home to their communities and families, and making a real, positive difference to some lives – while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency callouts that no longer happen.
Those who use the shelter say it provides a comforting place full of friendly faces, whereas the world outside is represented by people who ignore, look down upon, and shout at them instead.
But it remains clear that, since the shelter moved locations, those in neighbouring buildings have faced a daily combination of violent incidents nearby, threats of violence, theft from vehicles, damage to property, public urination and defecation, and a general sense that their safety in simply going to work cannot be guaranteed.
‘Do something about our safety’
Desjarlais, who is Indigenous, is not the only building owner on the street to report these problems, and to admit no longer knowing how to cope.
“Today, it was a nice, warm day and I was working at my building, cleaning up. The stench of urine is unbearable,” said John Williston, who owns the building housing Subway and Korea House, one day in March.
The following weekend, he sent Cabin Radio a photo showing what appeared to be human feces smeared on the side of his building. He then set about cleaning it up.
Williston has already lost one tenant, a business whose staff said they “were fearful” to come to work and subsequently declined to renew their lease.
He has letters from other tenants complaining not only of the impact on their business, but on their staff and their own lives, too.
In a letter to Williston, the boss of the building’s Subway franchise describes assaults on staff and customers, thefts, and smashed windows and doors. He describes reporting these incidents to both the city’s street outreach team and the police, “but the individuals keep returning.”
“We are tired of dealing with these incidents,” the franchisee writes, “and these incidents have worsened.
“We are concerned for the safety of our staff, and the safety of our patrons. We are requesting that you, as a landlord, do something about our safety.”
Williston said the next-door business, Korea House, sometimes locks its front door during opening hours – “which is bizarre, for a restaurant,” he added – as the staff are so concerned about who might come in.
“On several occasions,” writes Korea House owner and former city councillor Phil Moon Son in a letter to Williston, “staff and patrons have had encounters related to sexual harassment regarding nudity, images and inappropriate contact.”
In September 2018, another tenant writing to Williston states: “I feel like the amount of aggression has increased dramatically.
“I was sworn at for asking a man to not puke in the entryway,” the tenant writes. Another time, a woman “started swearing and yelling at our client to buy her alcohol.”
The letter continues: “I have to play music unless I want to hear swearing and fights breaking out from 12pm onward.
“We have been here for three years, but lately the issues have been getting worse.
“Today, I’ve had the door deadbolted as I didn’t have any clients scheduled. I could hear the homeless people partying and violently trying to get into the clinic about four or five times. It was really scary.”
‘Perpetual increase’ in violence
As the landlord, Williston is being asked to “do something.” But what?
He says he has tried employing members of the street community to help with odd jobs, and still does, but finds many people only want money for liquor and then the problems simply worsen. (Desjarlais, almost identically, says she tried to help people by employing them, but was subsequently threatened when she asked one man to return tools he had taken from her building.)
Both Desjarlais and Williston have approached the territorial government for help.
Williston, who once worked for the territorial government, said he remembers “all the gutless decisions that weren’t made from the bosses” in his time there.
“Now, the sobering centre and day shelter is in place and the things that come out from the government is all government-speak. It is nauseating to anybody,” he said, “but more to me because I’ve been there and understand where it is coming from.”
The territorial government and its partners say they have already taken action to increase security and safety measures at the day centre, and are actively engaging the neighbours to find more solutions.
Desjarlais disputes the level of engagement actually taking place. Williston says no action of consequence has happened, and feels nothing will happen.
“My options are incredibly limited,” he continued. “I’ve already lost a tenant and trying to replace that tenant means I am going to have to significantly reduce the rent.
“Here’s the double-edged sword: if I talk to you and let people know the problems we have, we diminish the interest in the lease.”
“We’ve been seeing this perpetual increase in violence,” said Desjarlais as she reviewed footage from her cameras in March.
Before the day centre moved to its new location, she presented to Yellowknife city councillors, urging them to carefully weigh issuing a permit for the move to happen.
She now feels ignored, let down, and threatened.
“I’ve seen women getting their faces kicked in, punched, it’s horrible,” she said.
“Everything that I’ve been saying to the government about what is going to happen, is happening.
“And as of right now, it’s lip service what they’re giving me.”
In three remaining reports, Cabin Radio will speak to people at the day shelter about their experiences; talk to the shelter’s managing authorities and RCMP about how safety on 50 Street is being addressed; and hear from all involved about the future for the shelter, the street, and Yellowknife’s downtown.