Yellowknife’s combined downtown day shelter and sobering centre is returning to its intended use – with reduced capacity – after serving as an isolation shelter for the past month.
The territorial government made the announcement in a Monday news release where it detailed steps it’s taking to support those experiencing homelessness and addiction during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In early April, the building on 50 Street became home to 30 high-risk homeless adults who agreed not to leave the site for 30 days. The building was closed to everyone else.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green raised concerns that the move left many vulnerable people in the city without a place to go. She and longtime advocate Lydia Bardak said that in turn put more pressure on the RCMP, emergency medical services and other shelters to help intoxicated people who could no longer go to the sobering centre.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Green expressed satisfaction that the building would again be used as a day shelter and sobering centre.
“I am glad the sobering centre has reopened because it provides a valuable service in our community,” Green told Cabin Radio. “Agencies and government worked very hard to establish the centre to relieve service pressure on EMS, the hospital and the RCMP while at the same time providing better opportunities for the homeless population.”
In an effort to address the gaps in service, the territorial government began operating a temporary day centre at the Salvation Army’s building on March 31. The space can serve 15 people at a time while up to 60 people at once had been using the day shelter and sobering centre. No replacement for the sobering centre was provided.
The territorial government says the expanded day program at the Salvation Army will continue during the pandemic to “ensure adequate capacity for day shelter services in Yellowknife.”
The NWT Disabilities Council, which operates the day shelter and sobering centre, had defended its decision to use the space as an isolation shelter. It said the existing model was not sustainable or safe during the pandemic, and the controlled distribution of alcohol and tobacco was helping those in isolation to feel healthier.
As reported by CBC and NNSL, documents from the council indicate the isolation centre had helped clients decrease their alcohol consumption and 10 clients stop using hard drugs. The documents also say those in isolation were not interested in having the centre return to a drop-in setting until the pandemic was over.
“The NWT Disabilities Council’s ‘Sheltering in Place’ model has seen many positive and healthy outcomes,” Denise McKee, executive director of the council, stated in Monday’s news release.
“These successes were achieved through the trust and willingness of the supported individuals to participate and the commitment of our dedicated direct care professionals.”
To accommodate physical distancing, the day shelter and sobering centre is reducing the number of people allowed in the space during the pandemic. Twenty people are allowed in the day shelter at a time – it will be open from 7am to 7pm. Eighteen people are allowed in the sobering centre at a time, which is open from 10am to 8am.
Residents now isolating at Arnica Inn
People using local shelters who are at high risk of serious illness can now shelter in place at the Arnica Inn building. They will be provided with food and managed access to alcohol and tobacco, much as the isolation facility at the day shelter and sobering centre had operated.
There are currently 25 rooms available at the Arnica Inn building, but the territorial government says more rooms may be made available if demand increases.
“There is currently sufficient space available at Arnica to provide a unit to all those individuals who have been identified. There is no one being turned away due to space limitations,” Sarah Chorostkowski, the NWT’s director of mental health and addiction recovery, told Cabin Radio.
Keys to the 42-room building were officially handed over to the Yellowknife Women’s Society last week. Once the pandemic ends, the society plans to continue using the space for supportive housing.
The territorial government has been using 36 units at Aspen Apartments to allow people experiencing homelessness to self-isolate during the pandemic.
According to Chorostkowski, a total of nine people have stayed at the Aspen Apartments. As of April 30, four had been discharged.
“We are meeting the challenges of housing vulnerable populations head-on, but we have much more work to do to keep folks safe,” Diane Thom, minister of health and social services, stated in Monday’s news release.