Amid reports of violence, is Yellowknife’s day shelter doing its job?
Are facilities like Yellowknife’s day shelter doing enough good to outweigh their negative impacts on those nearby?
Neighbours of the day shelter, on 50 Street, say they have suffered ever-increasing assaults, threats, and attacks to their property since the day shelter moved to their street last year.
If the day shelter were evaluated based on feedback from neighbours alone, it would almost certainly have closed. (Landlords rejected the territorial government more than 20 times before one finally agreed to house the facility.)
However, the authorities who run the shelter – and those who use it – say it is having a significant, positive impact on those it is designed to help.
People at the day shelter say fewer of them are dying in the cold. The building, they add, is one of the only places they are welcomed as human beings.
Staff say it is successful because, slowly but surely, clients are heading to their home communities and getting their lives back together.
Yet the building’s owner, while defending the project, admits its impact on neighbours is unfair.
In the second of a four-part series examining violence on Yellowknife’s streets and the factors behind it, Cabin Radio explores how different people and organizations define what the day shelter should be doing, and whether it is successful.
‘Ignored’ on the outside
“Nobody’s freezing any more, so it’s pretty good. You don’t hear about people freezing in back alleys.”
James – not his real name, at his request – has been a daily occupant of the shelter for years, predating its move to 50 Street.
Friends of his have frozen to death in downtown Yellowknife, he said. Now, the day shelter provides a warm home for card games and conversation during daylight hours, and the next-door sobering centre offers longer-term treatment and beds.
Read part one of this series: New videos show incident after violent incident on Yellowknife street
“Everybody’s got somewhere to go, especially when it’s cold,” said James.
Yet he, and others inside the centre one morning in early April, say the day shelter has come to mean warmth in another sense.
Stepping outside the building, James said, its mainly Indigenous clients are subjected to insults, taunts, and aggression from people who do not understand or attempt to empathize with them. Sometimes – and worse – they are ignored, as though invisible.
Inside, they have friends.
“It hurts a lot of people in here, seeing people just ignore us,” another man at the day shelter told Cabin Radio.
“Here, lots of people treat each other good, and you miss that when you’re out in the real world.”
Paradoxically, that can make it harder for the day shelter to do its ultimate job. People hate leaving, even if it’s to return home to family or take up work, because of the relationships they build.
“When you sober up, you’ve got nobody,” said James. “So you always come back here. A lot of people are really nice in here: the staff, everybody.
“You feel comfortable coming back.”
‘People give up’
Deciding whether the day shelter is working depends on how you interpret its role.
Those in charge say it is not a treatment centre, but is designed to “keep people alive” until they are ready and able to access the treatment they need.
Some living and working nearby say to group so many vulnerable people in one place, without long-term treatment and a stone’s throw from a liquor store, is dangerous on paper and proving so in practice.
Operations at the day shelter are managed by the NWT Disabilities Council. Denise McKee is its executive director.
“We have to step back and look at this on more of a macro level,” said McKee. “We have more than 350 unique people that come in here on a regular basis – 45,000 accesses since September.
“The people coming in and accessing medical and all those other things, they’re accessing us here and not accessing places elsewhere within the city.
“That’s a huge amount of impact. We’re keeping people alive so that when they’re ready for treatment, they can get treatment.”
How often do people end up being ready for that treatment?
James said “a few” people have, to his knowledge, turned their lives around after becoming regulars at the day shelter.
“A lot of people give up on their lives,” he immediately added, suggesting that kind of progress does not happen often. “Everybody’s trying to quit drinking, but it’s still damned hard. It’s a way of life.”
McKee said three people have recently taken the step of moving from Yellowknife back to their home communities after attending the day shelter, sobering centre, or both.
She added a case worker tries to ensure continuing supports remain available in those communities.
“These are big things to happen for somebody. And it’s also big for the people that have access to the centre, because they see success,” she said.
“We’re not a treatment centre. That’s not our goal. And yet when we can hit somebody exactly at the moment that they want that service, that becomes critical.
“We’ve had lots of feedback from the community – outside of this specific street, this narrow piece – from people saying it’s a really positive impact to the community.”
“The amount of money that we’re saving here is just… it’s staggering,” said Bruce Valpy.
Valpy is the publisher and chief executive of Northern News Services, which produces newspapers like the Yellowknifer and News/North.
The group’s offices are on 50 Street. Northern News Services, often abbreviated to NNSL, owns the day shelter building across the street.
Valpy recalls how the building was “quite a famous bar” before a cocaine bust saw the bar close and NNSL acquire the property.
As the territorial government searched in vain for somewhere to house the day shelter, Valpy remembers calling Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city administrator, to discuss whether the building might work.
“I wasn’t off the phone for an hour and I got a call from the government,” he recalled. “Eventually it worked out and they moved in.”
Extending McKee’s argument, he believes the facility’s positive impact on Yellowknife’s resources outweighs its negative impact on 50 Street.
“It would be really nice to attach a dollar figure to all the money that is saved by the police not being called,” he said, “by people not traipsing through the courts, by people not being represented by Legal Aid, by the prosecutor’s office not being brought in, by the court clerk and the court staff and the court records and the judge [not being needed], and then, you know, the end result is often the correctional facility.
“I really want to see that translated into a dollar figure per day, if not per hour.”
A ‘failed experiment’
Yet April Desjarlais – owner of the Finn Hansen building, next to the day shelter – feels it’s easy to conflate the work of the day shelter and sobering centre, which are separate services.
“I believe that there is absolutely a need for the sobering center. I agree that no human being should ever be passed out in a snowbank. They need a safe place to be,” said Desjarlais.
“What I don’t believe there is a need for, unless it was run properly, is the day shelter.”
Specifically, Desjarlais contends the day shelter does little to stop people drinking and, subsequently, being violent. (James, in the day shelter, admitted its proximity to the liquor store has made getting sober extremely difficult for him – though he also added he felt people would find their way to the liquor store, no matter where it was.)
“The day shelter is not being run properly,” said Desjarlais.
“It’s a drop-in centre. It’s an opportunity for people to go in, grab a coffee, check their emails, check their phones, get on the wifi, and come out with liquor in their backpack when they were just in the shelter.
“People can say that I’m just full of crap and this isn’t true, but I see it all day long. I have camera shots of it: individuals walking in the shelter with liquor, walking out drinking on the property of the day shelter, and then they’re told to get off the property to go drink somewhere else.”
Inside the day shelter, a woman reading the newspaper – who asked not to be named – agreed that people frequently come in with alcohol.
“They tell them to go and drink it across the street,” she said.
“And so they come to my property to drink,” continued Desjarlais.
“The shelter aspect is not working. It is a failed experiment. It was a pilot project to put the two together. In my opinion, it’s failed. The government needs to come up with a new solution.”
‘The most successful model’
Valpy admits the impacts of the day shelter on 50 Street are unfair on the facility’s neighbours.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “And I’m not real happy about that, or real proud about that.
“The only thing I would qualify that with is: some of that was going on. You know, the present always seems heavier than the past.”
McKee – who acknowledges people are encouraged to step off day shelter property to drink – said staff are trained to intervene when things get rough, or call the police if the violence is beyond their ability to control. (Desjarlais said she has seen little evidence of promised security measures outside the building in action.)
In the shelter itself, James suggested the neighbours themselves – and Yellowknife residents in general – could do more to help.
While Desjarlais and others have described trying to provide jobs to members of the city’s street community, James said some people who live and work along 50 Street (not Desjarlais) are known for shouting at day shelter clients or even setting dogs on them.
“They don’t come out and talk to the people and say, ‘Can you stop sitting here? Can you move over there?’ They don’t try that,” said James.
“They stick their dogs on us. And so nobody’s going to listen to them. They’re just going to make it worse.”
Instead, said James, community members should pay visits to the day shelter and set up programs.
“Talk to us,” he said. “We need people from the outside to come in and show that they care, make people feel good about themselves, so that they can take a program.
“Instead, they are pushing everybody away, putting them down, and making them feel worse.”
McKee, at a meeting with Cabin Radio and a range of other local authorities, responded to a question about neighbours’ concerns by discussing how “in the past, people of colour, people that were not hetero … were all ostracized and sent to institutions and things like this. We’re not about that.”
She continued: “These are people. An addiction is a disease, and they still have human rights. So we can’t force people to come inside. We can’t stop people from being on the street. We can’t do those things.
“What we can do is create the safest, best environment, so that people want to come here. And so in that case, we’re the most successful model, because everybody comes here.
“When we come together as a community, we can pull together and ask: what do we need to put in place, and what do we have to do to be able to support this social issue?”
The day shelter’s neighbours contend they are not questioning anyone’s human rights, nor trying to ostracize anyone.
They add they have tried, repeatedly, to support the day shelter and find ways to work together, only to face continued threats and violence.
“I really feel like I’m just at the breaking point,” said Desjarlais. “I go to work every day and I tell myself, ‘April, find it in your heart to have more compassion.’
“But when I see people getting beaten in front of my windows, when I’m told that I’m racist, when I’m threatened – I’ve had a few people tell me they’re going to kill me – and when I’ve had objects thrown at my face behind my office window, there are days I do feel like I’m the only one fighting this fight for our city.”
Next, we’ll look at the authorities responsible for what’s happening on 50 Street. How is the territorial government involved? What are RCMP doing to help? Who is evaluating what the day shelter does, and is there a functioning partnership with a plan to address neighbours’ concerns while helping vulnerable people?
Finally, we’ll look at the future of the facility, the street, and violence in downtown Yellowknife. How is City Hall responding? What might change, and when?