Is the NWT’s pandemic plan for vulnerable people a backward step?
While governments and organizations work to help Yellowknife’s vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic, some advocates say it’s setting back years of progress.
Last week, Yellowknife’s combined day shelter and sobering centre was converted into an isolation shelter for 30 high-risk homeless adults for 30 days. The building is closed to everyone else.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green says that’s leaving many vulnerable people without a place to go during the day as the library and other public spaces are closed.
“We need a continuum of services for the vulnerable population,” she said. “That continuum of services now is broken and at a time when it’s maybe more needed than ever.”
Green says that’s putting more pressure on other shelters in the city, as well as emergency medical services and police called to help intoxicated people who can no longer go to the sobering centre.
In a letter posted to her Facebook page on Tuesday, Green raised these concerns with NWT Minister of Health and Social Services Diane Thom and Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty.
“It’s as if we have gone back in time,” she wrote.
Green later told Cabin Radio: “Those issues have always existed. We seem to have a solution. The solution isn’t working right at the moment.”
Thom responded that shelters in the city have worked together to make sure no one is left without a place to sleep. The minister said there will always be cases where intoxicated people need to be taken to the hospital.
The Yellowknife Women’s Society and Salvation Army accept people who are intoxicated as long as they are not violent. They don’t currently offer medical services like the sobering centre and day shelter.
NWT Disabilities Council defends decision
Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for vulnerable people in Yellowknife, is concerned that the number of places for men to sleep has fallen from 70 to 30. She says no shelter in the city tracks how many people are turned away.
She echoed Green’s concern that more reliance is being placed on the RCMP to house intoxicated people who can’t stay at other shelters.
“There is no police recruit on the planet, I’m sure, who signs up to police work thinking they’re going to be social workers looking after intoxicated people,” said Bardak.
“They sign up for crime fighting, they want to keep our community safe. There was a lot of work for many, many, many years to provide an alternative that’s much more appropriate.”
Bardak said people kept overnight in the RCMP “drunk tank” must sleep on a cement floor, have no privacy, and may find themselves sharing the space – including a toilet – with many other people.
She said guards cannot enter the cells so, if there is an altercation, they must summon a police officer to intervene.
RCMP, asked if intoxicated people are staying in cells overnight and if precautions are being taken during the pandemic, had not responded to questions by the time of publication.
In a news release on Tuesday, the NWT Disabilities Council – which runs Yellowknife’s day shelter and sobering centre – defended its decision to use the space as an isolation centre.
The council said the existing model “was not sustainable or safe” during the pandemic as up to 60 people could use the centre at a time.
In the news release, the centre’s operator said people wanted to be able to isolate to protect themselves.
“With controlled distribution of alcohol and no access to illegal drugs, the people we support are telling us how they feel healthier than they have in years,” the council stated.
“Our staff and service users are feeling secure from the virus and are keeping each other strong as we continue to face uncertainty in these extraordinary times.”
What’s being done to help
The Yellowknife Women’s Society is working on turning the Arnica Inn into emergency temporary housing to help people isolate. Executive director Bree Denning said the society is waiting on a new insurance carrier for that to happen.
“I think we are suffering a bit because of the loss of access to the sobering centre. It does put us into a bit of a bind in terms of where to bring people,” Denning said.
“It’s really frustrating. I hope the Arnica can be up and running soon because that will take a bit of pressure off the shelters and hopefully allow for more space, so there are fewer people who have no place to go right now.”
The territorial government said it has taken measures to try to address the gaps for vulnerable people.
It’s using Yellowknife’s Aspen Apartments, which has 34 units, to house those facing homelessness who don’t have anywhere to self-isolate. A temporary day centre, using space provided by the Salvation Army, began operating on March 31 from 8am till 8pm daily. It can serve 15 people at a time and offers a place to stay warm, have a bite to eat, and watch TV.
A spokesperson for the NWT government, however, confirmed the centre was closed on Sunday and Monday.
Bardak expressed concern that the men’s shelter at the Salvation Army closes an hour before the temporary day centre opens. That means people are sitting on the sidewalk in the cold or left to find somewhere else to get warm, she said.
“You don’t get a really restful sleep in the Salvation Army so they’re still kind-of tired, they’re hungry, they’re cold, they’re waiting for an hour to get something to eat or to go inside.”
Bardak feels territorial health officials were ill-prepared to deal with the impact of the day shelter and sobering centre closing, though she acknowledged the pandemic took many by surprise.
“Every day is new and we don’t know what’s going to hit us. So everybody in all sectors is trying to cope with daily changes,” she said.
Green said after the downtown day shelter’s 30 days as an isolation unit is up, she’d like to see it returned to its regular use – with other shelters used as isolation centres.
Bardak suggested Yellowknife’s community arena could become a place for people to isolate. Before a location for the sobering centre was secured, the arena had formed a temporary sobering centre in 2017.