Yellowknife's downtown day centre will on Monday introduce a new policy of refusing service to people who already have a home.
The centre on 50 Street, which is operated by the NWT Disabilities Council, provides a safe and warm space during the day for people who might otherwise have nowhere to go but the street.
Until now, anyone could spend time at the day centre, regardless of their housing situation. From Monday, access will be granted only to people who are considered homeless.
The territory's health authority estimated 66 people would be affected, among them 17 people who "access the day centre on a regular, almost daily basis."
Diane Thom, the health and social services minister, insisted those people would now receive programs and services from other providers to make up for the gap.
"The operator and [the health authority] will ensure, with their community partners, that clients affected by this policy have options and an integrated plan so they are able to access other services," Thom wrote in an email to critics of the change.
The NWT Disabilities Council initially tried to introduce the policy at the beginning of November – saying its limited resources were being stretched, and removing those with homes would ensure the people who most need help got appropriate support.
However, that attempt was met with sharp criticism from some quarters.
The Yellowknife Women's Society said the policy might isolate people who have homes but rely on the day centre to see their friends and engage in society.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green felt the policy could shift people back from the day centre to the street. Green wrote at the time: "When I was campaigning I met people at the day shelter who were there for safety, company, and food. 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."
Some critics said the change was being introduced too rapidly, without enough time for other providers of programs and services to react and attempt to accommodate those affected. As a result, the NWT Disabilities Council delayed the move by a month.
"I appreciate that this policy change was not well communicated in advance," health minister Thom wrote in an email seen by Cabin Radio. The email was sent in response to concerns from advocates for the homeless that the policy "goes completely against any harm reduction, poverty reduction, mental health supports, and many other vital community supports."
The health authority published a version of Thom's email on Sunday, a day before the new policy was due to begin.
Though the text of the public version – which was not attributed to the health minister – is substantially similar to the emailed version, there are some differences.
For example, the reference to the change in policy being "not well communicated" is deleted from the public version, as is a sentence relating to the "long-standing concerns" of various groups about the day centre. A suggestion that individuals who have homes are "not accountable to the centre because they have other options for support," and that this is "problematic," is deleted from the public statement.
While the email says programs at the facility are intended to help people "address complex issues of colonialism, violence, trauma, and addiction," the public version simply says the programs are "specific to the needs of our clients."
More monitoring and evaluation
The shift in day centre policy, and criticism of the change, comes amid a broader debate over the shelter's function and effectiveness. (The day centre is one half of the facility – the other half is the sobering centre, where drunk people can safely sleep, and which is not affected by the new policy at the day centre.)
Residents and tenants of 50 Street buildings have complained that threatening behaviour, violence, and other forms of crime became much more of a problem once the facility opened on the street in September 2018. Some neighbours believe the centre is not making any meaningful difference to the lives of those who use it, while worsening the quality of life for others in the area.
However, the centre's advocates and its staff feel strongly that the facility is positively changing lives while significantly lightening the burden previously felt by RCMP and the emergency services – who, supporters of the centre suggest, used to face many more instances of downtown violence or intoxication.
On Sunday, the NWT's health authority stated three homeless people had been "independently and successfully housed" with the facility's help since its doors opened, and 15 people had been able to "return and reintegrate in their home communities." The authority said 34 people had been referred to addictions treatment programs.
Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for Yellowknife's homeless and vulnerable people, said on Friday she remained disappointed in the new policy.
Bardak argues that people who have homes but run out of money for food, laundry, the internet, or phone calls, will no longer be able to access those services at the day centre – and may struggle to do so elsewhere.
"Or, if they want to maintain a sober home, but feel lonely, they can not go to socialize, play a game of cards, have a cup of tea, or visit with family members or friends who they may not want to invite into their homes," Bardak wrote in an email criticizing the move.
Bardak told Cabin Radio: "There are folks in homes who are not in other programs and who don't have enough money for food, a telephone, or the internet; or folks who want to maintain their tenancy by not inviting guests home with them, but who still want to visit their friends, relatives, and others from their home community."
The health authority said it would step up monitoring and evaluation of the centre's performance over the next six months "so we can refine services."
A recently completed comprehensive evaluation of the facility recommended a significant increase in the services offered – like help with housing and access to case managers – to make it easier for people trying to get their lives back on track.
Emelie Peacock contributed reporting.