A sign on the door of Yellowknife's SideDoor resource centre announces its closure.
The board of Yellowknife’s SideDoor will shortly decide the future of its executive director, accused of misconduct by several of the program’s staff and youth.
In separate interviews with Cabin Radio, three current and former staff and two current youth members of the SideDoor program alleged wrongdoing ranging from bullying and financial mismanagement to the creation of a “toxic, hostile” atmosphere.
The youth called for more financial transparency and the appointment of a new executive director.
SideDoor, a Christian youth ministry, exists to provide housing and a range of related supports to Yellowknife’s vulnerable youth.
The program has been run for the past six years by executive director Iris Notley, also known as Iris Hamlyn.
Notley, reached by phone on Tuesday, said she would “absolutely not” conduct an interview about the concerns raised.
“There is no story,” Notley said.
“The board and chair will answer any questions and there is a general statement that’s being released, but I’m not at liberty to discuss anything.”
Last week, Kirk Tastad and Jonathon Geraci – co-chairs of SideDoor’s board – acknowledged in a written statement they had “very recently been made aware of some complaints that we are taking seriously and are actively looking into.”
Tastad and Geraci told Cabin Radio: “We are currently following a process to ensure that we have clarity on all of the concerns and that we hear from all perspectives, which is important to allow the board to properly address and respond to these concerns. It is inappropriate to speak to any matter before this process is completed.”
Cabin Radio understands the board expects to communicate its decision by the end of Tuesday.
Directors are said to have spent the past week meeting with youth, staff, Notley, and each other, while seeking external advice.
“The environment at SideDoor is most definitely toxic and hostile,” one person with more than a year’s experience working in the program told Cabin Radio this month. Minutes from recent board meetings show the organization has been experiencing a high turnover of staff.
All current and former staff members and youth interviewed by Cabin Radio spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
SideDoor, which has existed in Yellowknife for 25 years, has a positive reputation in the wider community. Its programs provide shelter and longer-term housing for youth in need, help youth find employment, and provide recreational space at a centre in downtown Yellowknife.
In 2017, celebrating the two-year anniversary of Hope’s Haven – a transitional housing and emergency shelter facility she had created for youth – Notley told the CBC more than 100 youth had used the shelter in the past year.
However, some youth who rely on SideDoor have voiced increasingly public criticism of SideDoor’s management. This culminated in a late February letter to the ministry’s board in which they said “drastic changes are being made in our lives without our consent.”
The 10-page letter – signed by two youth – alleged many instances of wrongdoing, including abuse of power, verbal abuse, favouritism, and poor communication.
The letter also alleges youth in a SideDoor housing program were recently told their leases were ending, with no certainty about what happens next.
“The Home4U program claims that it exists to end youth homelessness,” the letter states.
“On February 28, 2020, youth at the Carlton building were given a letter saying that their lease is ending and that they will be transitioning the leases to [the youth], given they have a good reputation with the landlords.
“In this letter it states that this has been the plan since November 2019. However, the February 28, 2020 letter was the first time that any youth had heard of this plan.”
Two people associated with SideDoor said closing the Home4U program would mean a 17-year-old with a one-year-old child would have “nowhere to go.”
Resource centre’s future in question
Last week, a sign at the SideDoor resource centre on Yellowknife’s 50 Street stated the centre was “closed until further notice.”
Notley told NNSL the centre was short-staffed. Several staff and youth said the executive director was seeking to permanently close down the resource centre.
A separate, unsigned 13-page letter, prepared by several current and former staff members and sent to SideDoor’s board, states: “The resource centre is an imperative part of SideDoor programming, and youth enjoy spending their time there. Iris … is moving really fast and not telling anyone about these decisions, including the youth who are directly impacted by her choices.
“We expect that she would need the board’s approval for such massive changes in the organization. We would like for the board to consult the youth and staff before agreeing to these changes, as they are unnecessary and will negatively impact the lives of those who regularly access the resource centre.”
A staff member subsequently told Cabin Radio the apparent closure of Home4U and the resource centre would “effectively end our program,” leaving only the Hope’s Haven facility.
“The resource centre has been around for 25 years,” said the staff member. “It is an institution for these youth – some have aged out of our services but still come by and talk about coming there as a child. She has no right to end this program. It wasn’t hers to end.”
‘What’s going on?’
No allegations against Notley are proven. Many of those documented in the letters are of a serious financial nature, or allege illegality, and could not be immediately verified. (Subsequent to this article’s first publication, Julie Green – the MLA for Yellowknife Centre – posted a document indicating SideDoor had received “a clean audit” in March 2018. Green had earlier declined an interview with Cabin Radio, citing a conflict of interest as a family member is involved with SideDoor programming.)
In total, the two letters make more than 50 separate claims.
“We went through this before, trying to talk to the board members about it,” one youth told Cabin Radio, “and they didn’t really address it. We were just shut down.”
The youth said they had been told the organization “can’t afford to pay for SideDoor any more,” referring to the resource centre and programs such as Home4U.
Cabin Radio understands the resource centre lot and property is leased from the City of Yellowknife at little or no cost. The City, by email, confirmed such a lease exists and referred Cabin Radio to minutes from a March 2000 council meeting. Those minutes suggest SideDoor leases the resource centre for a fee of $1 per year, but is then responsible for the cost of operating and maintaining the building.
A former staff member said: “There’s no way I can see how all of those supports can be in one little building” at Hope’s Haven, the organization’s other building on 52 Street.
“Where is the money? What’s going on?” they asked. “Why are programs shutting down?”
The youth said they wanted SideDoor’s board to change the organization’s management and institute more financial transparency, so the spending of money on programming could be better tracked.
Having declined an interview, directors Tastad and Geraci said in their statement: “The health, safety, and well-being of our clients and of our employees is paramount in how we deliver on our mandate to serve youth here in the North.
“Our board is focused on ensuring a fair process that gives adequate opportunity for those with concerns and for those who may be the subject of those concerns. We are not prepared to comment further on what may be a personnel matter as media is not where we manage our relationships with clients or with our employees.”