Yellowknife’s sobering and day centre: what happens next?

Yellowknife's downtown day shelter and sobering centre is pictured on the morning of April 15, 2019
Yellowknife's downtown day shelter and sobering centre is pictured on the morning of April 15, 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Yellowknife’s downtown sobering centre and day shelter needs to eventually offer a more comprehensive set of services to be fully effective, an independent evaluation found.

The report praises many areas of the facility’s work while making a range of recommendations.

Right now, the sobering centre gives intoxicated people somewhere safe to sleep, while the day shelter is designed to provide a safe, warm daytime environment for people who might otherwise have nowhere to go. The two have been in the same building since last fall.

The evaluation suggests the facility house more services, like help with housing and access to case managers, to make it easier for people trying to get their lives back on track.



As an ultimate goal, the report envisages the facility offering more medical and social services – things like a dedicated medical team, plus addictions and family counsellors – in an integrated service model, alongside structured harm-reduction programs.

In full: Read the evaluation of Yellowknife’s sobering and day centre
In full: Read the NWT Health and Social Services Authority response

Publishing the evaluation on Thursday, the NWT’s health authority announced a series of changes to help address some of the recommendations included in the report.

Longer-term expansion of the facility’s services must wait until a new NWT government is in place after this fall’s election, the authority said.



Among short-term fixes is the finalizing of a good-neighbour agreement for the facility, a much-discussed document which has been in the works for some months.

Also promised are street patrols by the centre’s staff. The health authority said these will “create a visible presence, help manage foot traffic in the area, and notify appropriate authorities for intervention if required.”

The evaluation suggests longer-term work could be undertaken to provide an outdoor space for people, and a dedicated space for people who are sober.

The report found the sobering centre ends up turning away many people who are too sober to use it.

“We know that the centre is an essential service, and that providing additional supports to community members struggling with addictions, homelessess, and mental health issues is the right thing to do,” said Sue Cullen, chief executive of the health authority.

“Our challenge now is to continue to improve this program so we are doing this work in the best way and adding the necessary supports to help clients find wellness in a way that works for them. This evaluation will help us advance this work and improve our community.”

Safety and ‘good neighbours’

The evaluation noted safety concerns expressed by neighbours of the centre, on Yellowknife’s 50 Street, which made headlines in recent months.

April Desjarlais, who owns and works in a next-door building, told Cabin Radio earlier this year: “I really feel like I’m just at the breaking point. 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.”

Services provided at the sobering and day centre

A graphic from the evaluation report clarifies what happens at the day shelter and what happens at the sobering centre.

Since Desjarlais made those remarks, the agencies who help to run the sobering centre and day shelter have pledged to come up with a good-neighbour agreement designed to address who’s responsible for security and clean-up around the centre.

The NWT’s health authority now says finalizing that agreement, which was meant to be in place this month but has been delayed, is a top priority.

On August 12, Glen Abernethy – the minister responsible – said his department was still negotiating with neighbours like Desjarlais.

Desjarlais, who owns the Finn Hansen Building, told Cabin Radio by email she met a negotiator hired by the health department on August 18.

At the meeting, Desjarlais wrote, she presented changes she hoped to see in a revised good-neighbour agreement. A draft version of the agreement, seen by Cabin Radio, contains many of the items Desjarlais suggested.

However, some items – for example, those related to enforcement of the NWT Liquor Act – were absent.



The ethnicity of people using the sobering and day centre

A graphic from the evaluation report shows the ethnic identity of people using the sobering and day centre. The data was provided by the NWT Disabilities Council. It’s not clear how the categories of Dene and First Nation relate, or how Métis people were able to identify their ethnicity.

The draft agreement does require the centre’s operator to report any crimes and have staff contact RCMP when a client engages in criminal conduct. 

“I have requested that the next meeting include the actual parties to the agreement so that we can move things forward,” wrote Desjarlais.

Earlier this month, Abernethy said safety patrols outside the centre had already begun. They were named on Thursday by the health authority as a key initial response to the evaluation.

The patrolling individuals are meant to talk to people, encourage them to “control behaviours,” and help people in crisis, the health minister said.

Desjarlais told Cabin Radio she feels the patrols “seem infrequent,” adding she had already seem workers run into “some very sticky situations.”

“I’m not sure why the GNWT feels it’s OK to have these folks intervening in dangerous situations but not the City’s own municipal enforcement officers, who do have training,” she wrote.

More programming at the day shelter

Abernethy had been responding to questions from Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, who on August 12 praised the efforts of the City of Yellowknife, a street outreach program, and the sobering centre in improving life downtown.



The evaluation published on Thursday agrees that the people who actually use the combined sobering centre and day shelter, in particular, have good things to say about the facility – which opened in September 2018 and is operated by the NWT Disabilities Council.

Summarizing its findings, the evaluation report states the facility lets people feel “respected and safe” while inside, and is “providing a needed service” that people can’t otherwise access.

To prepare the report, consultants DPRA spent a week in April surveying 45 clients (the consultants’ term for people who use the facility), holding focus groups with staff and partner agencies, and interviewing local businesses and neighbours. They also analyzed data collected by medical staff and the NWT Disabilities Council.

DPRA said 89 percent of people surveyed indicated they had benefited from having the sobering centre and day shelter located in the same place.

The age of people using the sobering and day centre

This graphic from the evaluation shows the age of people using the day shelter. A third of people at the shelter, from the sample surveyed for this graphic, are in their fifties.

While people largely felt safe there, DPRA wrote that “clients, partner agency representatives, and neighbours expressed dissatisfaction with the hands-off approach taken by staff during incidences of violence at the day shelter.”

The consultants also said there is a risk of boredom as people at the day shelter often don’t have much to do.

On Thursday, the health authority said it would overseen the immediate implementation of additional programming in response, “including culturally relevant activities and programs to engage users of the services in a positive way and develop avenues for healing and wellness.”



The health authority said people would be asked what activities they’d like to see, then options for on-site and off-site programming would be explored “in partnership with local organizations where possible.”

That will include a new initiative with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, offering users of the sobering and day centre access to healing camps. Two new staff members will be brought on to make that happen.

The health authority also said the facility will get more involvement of elders in programming, which may include an elder-in-residence program.

More services under one roof

In the longer term, the consultants recommended the facility expand to offer a wealth of other services.

“Most integrated services models that exist across Canada include a combination of services in the areas of housing, harm reduction, medical care, and counselling,” DPRA wrote in the evaluation report.

“Based on the findings of this evaluation, it was identified that housing and shelter services are needed by the target audiences, as well as a growing need for case management, expanded medical services, and harm reduction and addiction treatment programs.

“By having these services fully integrated and co-located, it would reduce the barriers to access and could leverage existing positive relationships between staff and clients to encourage continuity of care for the most vulnerable populations.”

A graphic shows the lengths of time for which sobering and day centre users have experienced different problems

This graphic from the evaluation shows a significant number of people using the sobering and day centre have had problems with addiction for decades. Around half have been homeless for one to five years.



Adding all of those services under one roof is likely to represent a considerable challenge.

Without making any specific commitments, the health authority said it was “working toward integrating additional outreach services at the centre.”

While the NWT Disabilities Council is the centre’s current operator, the tender is up for renewal this fall and will go through a competitive process.

Enforcing a good-neighbour agreement

The first step, finalizing a good-neighbour agreement, has generated considerable discussion at both territorial and municipal level.

In addition to August’s exchanges in the legislature, city councillors debated the extent and purpose of a good-neighbour agreement on August 19.

In that discussion, city councillors Julian Morse and Niels Konge expressed frustration about the limited tools available to City Hall.

“How do we get the GNWT, the RCMP – the people that already have the tools to deal with these social issues and problems that we are having in our city and our downtown – to come and do something?” asked Konge. “Because it is not our responsibility and we don’t have the tools.”

City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett told councillors the City has lobbied the health department, but Morse said lobbying thus far hasn’t worked. He accused the territorial government of dragging its heels in establishing a good-neighbour agreement.



“That creates a fairly strong statement that they’re not particularly interested in being a good neighbour,” said Morse. 

Keith Sulzer, the City’s manager of municipal law and policy, told councillors the biggest issue with a good-neighbour agreement is likely to be how it is enforced.

Sulzer said that depends on the detail of the agreement, for example whether it is a voluntary agreement or subject to requirements mandated by a bylaw.

The provisions of a good-neighbour agreement could also be built into the terms of a business licence or as part of the conditional permitting of a facility under zoning bylaws. The City says those options would need careful study.

The draft agreement for the sobering centre seen by Cabin Radio is not legally binding. No party to it can be held liable for breaching the agreement or failing to fulfill its terms.

The agreement does set out the creation of a good-neighbour committee which will meet monthly. That would include, at minimum: the neighbours, the operator, the City, RCMP, the Department of Justice, the health authority, and – potentially – the nearby liquor store.

Up till now, “touchpoint meetings” involving most of those parties have taken place on a semi-regular basis.

In April, a group of 10 partners helping to oversee or support the sobering and day centre acknowledged that, up till that time, the touchpoint meetings had not included any Indigenous representation.