The death of a man attacked outside Yellowknife’s downtown sobering centre has led to renewed calls for urgent change at the heart of the city.
Mark Poodlat, who was 36, passed away after being punched three times outside the sobering centre and day shelter on 50 Street last Tuesday. A 32-year-old, Victor Ugyuk, is charged with murder.
Friends remembered Mark as kind, gentle, and generous. The McKenna funeral home said service in his memory would be announced once details were finalized.
NNSL reported an argument over a bike may have triggered the attack.
The assault on Mark Poodlat followed months of debate over the role of the sobering centre and day shelter in treating the addictions, violence, and homelessness that affect so many people living rough in downtown Yellowknife.
A recent evaluation of the combined facility, which opened on 50 Street in September 2018, said it was proving effective on many fronts but improvements could be made.
In the longer term, the independent evaluators felt the facility could add more services related to housing and healthcare so as to become a one-stop shop for those in need.
However, in the short term, the evaluators recommended – among other actions – providing routine safety patrols by staff following regular complaints from neighbours. Nearby businesses and landlords have documented incidents of drunkenness, intimidation, and physical violence affecting them and their staff.
On Friday, a post to a Facebook page started by April Desjarlais – who owns the neighbouring Finn Hansen building – asked: “Can we all agree, finally, that enough is enough?”
Expressing her condolences to Mark Poodlat’s family and friends, Desjarlais, who has many times publicly expressed her concerns about the day shelter’s operations, accused territorial and municipal leaders of fostering “a culture of looking the other way” when it comes to the state of Yellowknife’s downtown.
“It should be clear to the public that these politicians have created an environment of accommodation where violent people feel like they can just walk up to someone on a downtown street, knock them unconscious, and then saunter away like it’s no big deal,” Desjarlais wrote.
“That’s life on the streets of downtown Yellowknife and experience tells them there will be few or zero repercussions.
“It shakes me to the core to know that only a few months ago, after witnessing yet another brutal attack outside the facility, I feared that someone was going to die if things didn’t change quickly. But the politicians and the bureaucrats just keep fighting me.”
“The ‘tone from the top’ in this city and territory needs to change. Elected officials need to be held responsible for their actions or inaction on the dire state of our downtown. This is heartbreaking. Someone has died.”
‘A bigger problem’
Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre for the past four years, disputed the assertion that Mark Poodlat’s death could be attached to a failure of political leadership.
“There have been services put in place by the territorial and municipal governments to help the intoxicated population,” Green wrote on her campaign website as she seeks re-election in the district.
“A recent evaluation of the shelter said it was effective but could do more. The safe ride program has freed up ambulances to deal with emergencies. The new street patrol is doing well to responding to problems outside the shelter, say those familiar with the service.
“This attack is part of a bigger problem of people harming each other while under the influence of drugs and alcohol … while the assault took place in front of the shelter, it didn’t have anything to do with the shelter.”
Quoting RCMP statistics presented to city councillors on August 26, Green said “violence is more likely to happen somewhere other than downtown.” (Of 109 reported assaults in the RCMP’s latest monthly report, police said 28 happened downtown.)
“I am and remain an adamant supporter of the day shelter and sobering centre,” said Green.
“It provides a safe and decent place for intoxicated people to sober up and others to pass their time. There’s no value and a lot of potential harm in walking away from this new service.
“I have demonstrated leadership downtown by lobbying for improved services and questioning the Minister of Health and Social Services about their delivery,” Green concluded, though she acknowledged “more … can be done” by the incoming territorial government after October 1’s election.
How the new safety patrols work
The safety patrols recommended by the evaluators are already in place. Even before the evaluation was made public, health minister Glen Abernethy had told the legislature such patrols were being introduced.
On Friday, the NWT’s health authority told Cabin Radio the patrols began at the end of July.
Spokesperson Lisa Giovanetto, responding to emailed questions, said the sobering centre and day shelter now employed “two safety patrol positions” patrolling the neighbourhood of the facility from 7am until 7pm, Monday to Friday, “in all weather.”
Patrols are broken down into two six-hour shifts. “These positions were created specifically to patrol the streets,” Giovanetto wrote.
The patrols cover 50 Street outside the facility, where Mark Poodlat was attacked last Tuesday. The patrol route also covers the alleyway adjacent to the facility, the corner outside Reddi Mart, the parking lot behind NNSL, and the pop-up park.
“The patrollers ensure that a trauma-informed best-practice approach is utilized when supporting individuals who may be experiencing homelessness, abuse, violence, mental health issues, addiction issues, and other complex needs,” Giovanetto wrote.
“They build relationships with clients to support them and ensure safety, using respectful communication and nonviolent strategies to safely defuse hostile situations, and modelling positive social interaction to our clients.”
Patrolling staff file logs and incident reports related to each outing.
“The safety patrollers were patrolling regularly on Tuesday,” said Giovanetto. “We are unable to provide details about Tuesday’s events while the investigation is ongoing and the matter proceeds to court.”
The health authority said counselling was being offered to people who use the sobering centre and day shelter, and staff who work there.
Candidates debate solutions
How the NWT government might alter its approach to Yellowknife’s downtown is expected to form a key concern for voters in the district ahead of polling day.
Candidate Arlene Hache told Cabin Radio she felt Green, her rival, had “failed to recognize that the job of an MLA is to lead, not accept what is the norm.”
Hache, who supports the implementation of a good-neighbour agreement for the facility, said she feels support services for vulnerable people are striking the wrong tone.
“I saw Mark’s mother today, and I saw people on the street today, who said we have to stop thinking that this is normal,” Hache said on Friday. “It is not normal.
“But service providers take that kind of bent and that kind of approach, which sort-of entrenches the notion that this whole block of poor people really aren’t capable of doing anything.
“I think that can change,” said Hache. “Mental aid is a critical, concrete tool that would help this community generally [to know] how to intervene.”
Thom Jarvis, also running in Yellowknife Centre, said: “What has been attempted thus far is not working. Things are actually worse than they were before.”
While he praised the introduction of the street outreach van to downtown Yellowknife, Jarvis urged the use of “new, culturally appropriate partners” – citing William Greenland, who is heavily involved in the work of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, as an example.
Niels Konge, the city councillor who announced his candidacy in Yellowknife Centre last week, published his platform on Sunday. The document included a call for the city to receive more resources to tackle downtown concerns.
Konge said he wants to see “decision-makers [brought] physically closer to the downtown core to ensure they have the best information and insight into what can be done,” though his platform did not specify the detail of this.
While Konge does not live in the district, he said his company owns a building in the downtown.
“The human costs of continuing without serious intervention downtown are not acceptable to me,” he wrote.