A Yellowknife MLA is pushing for the city’s combined day shelter and sobering centre to return to its intended use.
Earlier this month, the building on 50 Street was converted into an isolation centre for 30 high-risk homeless adults. It will remain so until early May.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green says that has left the city and territory without a sobering centre – a place where intoxicated people can sober up under medical supervision.
“Everything we had achieved with the sobering centre and day shelter, in terms of providing services to the street population, has now been put away. It doesn’t exist in that same form,” Green said during a standing committee meeting on Wednesday.
Green introduced a motion directing the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services to have the space return to its original function as soon as the 30 days are up, in the first week of May.
She noted the NWT Disabilities Council has a contract with the territorial government to run the sobering centre 24 hours a day and the shelter for 12 hours every day. She said that contract does not provide for the space to be used as a residence.
“The contractor has broken the terms of the contract and the department has acknowledged that privately,” she said.
Several MLAs, including Frieda Martselos and Caitlin Cleveland, supported the motion, acknowledging that a sobering centre is needed in the territory.
Cleveland said as alcohol availability is reduced and public health orders are upheld in communities, there could be an influx of people coming to Yellowknife.
“We’re going to see a lot more need for services from people for communities and we know that the result of that will be an increased need in Yellowknife,” she said.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson was supportive of having a sobering centre or managed alcohol program available in Yellowknife, but hesitant to support a motion telling the NWT Disabilities Council how to operate the centre.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said the motion should be directed to the minister rather than the department.
Green said she would rework the motion for a second meeting on Friday.
RCMP confirms people may be kept in cells
Green and Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for vulnerable people in Yellowknife, had earlier expressed concern that the closure of the sobering centre meant greater reliance on RCMP to help intoxicated people.
Under the territory’s Liquor Act, a police officer can apprehend a person without charging them if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe the person is intoxicated in a public place.
RCMP say they try to use existing services, like the sobering centre, and may also reach out to the person’s friends and family to take care of them. As a last resort, police said, they may place that person in detachment cells.
“Our number-one priority is the safety of the person and the public, and incarceration continues to be a last resort,” an emailed statement from the RCMP reads.
“We have, and continue to work with our partners in servicing our vulnerable population sector.”
A file photo of RCMP vehicles outside the Yellowknife detachment. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Under the act, intoxicated people in custody will be released when they have recovered to the point they are unlikely to cause injury to themselves or be a danger, nuisance, or disturbance to others. They can also be released if a sober and responsible person agrees to take care of them.
Bardak said organizations and advocates in the city have worked for many years to put an end to the practice of housing vulnerable people in cells, by providing better alternatives.
She said people kept overnight in cells must sleep on a cement floor, have no privacy, and can share the cell and a toilet with up to 12 other people. Guards cannot enter the cells, she added, so if there is an altercation a police officer has to be called to intervene.
RCMP did not say what, if any, precautions are being taken in these cases during the public health emergency.
“Our focus remains on public and individual safety. The current health emergency has affected us all,” the RCMP statement reads.
“RCMP recognize the seriousness of persons who may feel displaced by a change in their normal routine, and will continue to work with our partners for viable solutions.”