A decision to allow only homeless people inside Yellowknife's downtown day shelter has been welcomed as a courageous move by neighbours but dismissed as ill-conceived by others.
The NWT Disabilities Council, which operates the combined day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street, initially planned to make the change last week. It will now come into effect on December 2.
Up till now, the day shelter has been largely open to anyone who showed up.
The new policy declares: "If you have an established housing arrangement, we do not have the resources to support you."
Supporters of the policy say there is clear evidence the past approach wasn't working, and this represents decisive action. However, there are concerns the move may simply move many problems elsewhere, or that some people could experience isolation if cut off from friends purely by virtue of having somewhere to sleep.
The day shelter and sobering centre offer distinct but related services aimed at vulnerable people who could otherwise be on the city's streets. The day shelter is intended to be a safe and warm daytime environment; the sobering centre is a place for intoxicated people to sleep.
The facility has been in the news for much of the year. Neighbours have spoken out about daily violence and intoxication on 50 Street since the building opened, while 36-year-old Mark Poodlat died in September of injuries sustained in an assault directly outside the shelter. A 32-year-old, Victor Ugyuk, is charged with murder.
At the same time, the centre has been lauded for freeing up life-saving resources in the city by stepping in where police and other emergency services were formerly the first line of response.
The NWT Disabilities Council has just had its contract to run the centre renewed by the territory's health authority, which provides funding. Last week, the council posted a notice at the centre which stated only people without homes would be allowed to use the day shelter's facilities.
"The day centre was developed to meet the needs of homeless adults in the City of Yellowknife," the notice read. "Due to high demand of our services and limited resources, the day centre is only able to provide support to those currently experiencing homelessness.
"If you have an established housing arrangement we do not have the resources to support you at the day centre. We encourage you to connect directly with your other day programs and services within Yellowknife that are equipped to meet your needs."
The notice defines "established housing arrangements" as a private rental, home ownership, or any "permanent established accommodations," as well as housing through other service providers like the YWCA, Housing First, Bailey House, and Side Door.
People temporarily in Yellowknife who live in another community are also not allowed to access the day shelter, the notice stated.
A sign posted at Yellowknife's day centre in late October 2019. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The new policy was first reported by NNSL, as was the dismayed response of some people who use the centre. Advocates from other groups have suggested they felt blindsided by the announcement.
On Friday, appearing to take that into account, the NWT Disabilities Council said it had delayed the policy's start date until December 2.
The council said the month-long postponement would give other service providers time to "develop and implement" services for the people they house – services the council "believed to have been in place," it said in a statement.
Despite criticism from groups like the Yellowknife Women's Society, the organization affirmed it would press ahead with the change.
Saying the decision had been made in consultation with the NWT's health authority, the centre's operators said a policy of working only with homeless people would increase safety of staff, people at the centre, and the public in general, while allowing the centre to better use its funding and offer better programming.
People who have housing, the statement read, have "caused an ongoing safety issue by using the centre without regard for rules and expectations." The NWT Disabilities Council said any action taken against those people had "little consequence when they can return to their own dwelling."
The statement said there were "many instances" where violence involved people who have homes entering the day centre and causing a conflict.
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the NWT Health and Social Services Authority, told Cabin Radio a recent evaluation of the day shelter and sobering centre had urged renewed focus on people who need help alongside more case management and counselling.
"This is hard to do when the day centre has the volume of clients it currently serves," Maguire said. On Thursday, he stated, there were 1,000 entrances to the centre (though multiple visits by the same individual are each counted separately).
"With limited resources of five to six staff in the centre each shift, supporting this volume of people requires all our attention," the NWT Disabilities Council stated. "With this volume of people, the centre itself naturally increases in volume and traffic, and maintaining a calm environment is extremely challenging. "
The change was discussed with neighbours, Maguire said. A good-neigbhour agreement between the NWT Disabilities Council, the territorial government, and a range of other partners – like the City of Yellowknife and the police – was signed in October.
"We believe this policy change will move us towards the right mix of having a safe place for those who need it most while reducing the 'party' atmosphere members of the public have complained about," Maguire said.
The sobering centre will continue to be open to anyone to sleep off the effects of alcohol or drugs, regardless of their housing situation.
'A courageous move'
April Desjarlais, who owns and operates the Finn Hansen building next door to the facility, said she was surprised – and encouraged – by the NWT Disabilities Council's decision to adopt a new policy.
"it's obvious that what was happening wasn't working," she said, calling the change a "bold" and "courageous" move which would provide better help to those who need it.
"The policy change, to me, is a step towards seeing if positive changes can happen for the actual patrons," Desjarlais said.
However, she questioned what would now happen to people who previously spent time at the day centre but will no longer qualify for entry.
"Well see where those individuals end up," said Desjarlais as several people shared liquor bottles outside her building. "Will they be partying on 49th, 48th, Main Street, behind wherever?"
Desjarlais accused police and the Department of Justice of showing little interest in enforcing the provisions of the Liquor Act. "If these parties move, we still need somebody to enforce this," she said.
Desjarlais was not the only one caught unawares by the day shelter's policy shift. In a statement emailed to Cabin Radio, the commander of Yellowknife's RCMP detachment – Inspector Alexandre Laporte – stated the NWT Disabilities Council's decision was a "surprise development."
"We are in the process of finding out more information," he wrote. "We will continue to work with our partners and support public health initiatives for those in need in our city."
The City of Yellowknife said in a statement it had recently learned of the new policy and looked forward to more discussions.
Policy 'will increase evictions'
Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society, does not agree with the new policy. She feels excluded people with homes will result in more noise complaints and evictions, as well as isolation for some people who – while they may be housed – have no social circle outside the day shelter.
"Many of our Housing First clients, and other people, use the day shelter as a place to meet their friends, their family, and people they care about," Denning said.
"Now that they can't go there, there will be an increase in noise complaints and evictions due to people bringing people back home because even though they are housed, that's still their community. Now they don't have a place where they can spend time with their community."
Particularly concerning is the barring of people who are housed in other communities, Denning said. "Individuals who are here for a medical or justice-related reasons have no means of accessing other services. There are no day programs or other services for individuals who are intoxicated during the day."
Many of the people using the day centre are constituents of Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, who said she would follow up with Premier Caroline Cochrane about the change.
"When I was campaigning I met people at the day shelter who were there for safety, company, and food," Green wrote on Facebook. "I thought this was the day shelter’s mandate. I can’t believe that going back to stairwells, bank foyers, and back alleys is a better choice."
In her view, the recently completed evaluation – as mentioned by Maguire, the health authority spokesperson – "doesn't recommend this change."
'Who knows what it's like at home?'
Cabin Radio spoke to several people outside the day centre last week.
"Everybody around here, we're all brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Everybody just respects each other around here," said Shane Greenland, who is homeless but has friends who are housed and who access the centre.
"I come here, get tea, coffee," said Greenland. "Any kind of breakfast and I do my thing all day."
Cindy, who did not want to share her last name, felt people who have homes should be able to come to the centre "for a limited time."
Describing being kicked out of the centre recently herself, Cindy said the facility "helps you when you want coffee, want to take a shower, wash your clothes, everything.
"Nobody is going to give you that opportunity," she said. "The government doesn't give a s**t about you as long as they have money in their pocket."
If people were not at the centre, Greenland and his friend Pat Ryan agreed, they would be at the library, the Centre Square Mall, or A&W. However, if people are too intoxicated in these spaces, "they just give you the boot," Greenland added.
Ryan, meanwhile, argued for the whole day and sobering centre to be shuttered. Ryan has a place to sleep. He feels the building is "only a place for people to hang around, drink, or cause trouble."
"It doesn't make a difference, you'll find somewhere to go," he added. "It's a waste of money, as far as I'm concerned, to rent this building and house a crowd of grown-ups."
A 46-year-old Yellowknife man, who did not want to be identified as it could put his housing in jeopardy, said he was told by staff on Friday he could not go inside the centre.
He saw the centre as a place to socialize and "part of the community."
"Who knows what it's like at home" for some people, the 46-year-old said. "For me right now, they say I'm not on a lease but they say, 'Oh, you're being sheltered.'
"It's not my home, I could be kicked out whenever they want."