Following a lengthy debate about whether a city-owned building could soon house a temporary day shelter, Yellowknife councillors have asked the territorial government to find another solution.
Last week, representatives from the NWT Department of Health and Social Services presented a proposal to councillors asking to use the building that formerly housed SideDoor’s youth centre, on the corner of 50 Street and 49 Avenue.
The territorial government says it needs to find a new space for a temporary shelter during the pandemic where people experiencing homelessness can get warm, eat, and socialize as cold weather approaches.
On Monday, however, councillors and neighbouring business owners criticized the proposal to use SideDoor’s old location. They cited concerns about the effect the existing, permanent day shelter and sobering centre has had on another block of 50 Street.
Sandra Stirling, one of the owners of Overlander Sports – located directly beside the former SideDoor building – told councillors she worries an “atmosphere of indecency, drunkenness, and aggression” will spread to downtown businesses.
“I’m not at all convinced that what they are proposing is actually going to work,” she said of the NWT government’s plan.
“We want to remain in business for years to come.”
Stirling said she is concerned about the safety of her customers and the 20 staff she employs. She said her sporting goods store has already spent thousands of dollars on security cameras to address shoplifting. If the city approves the territory’s request, she said, she will likely have to install exterior cameras and window coverings, and hire security.
Sandra Stirling expressed her concerns to councillors by video.
Jeannie Rocher, who owns a number of buildings on 50 Street, said small businesses in the city are already struggling because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having to pay for additional security and address other potential issues with a day shelter, she said, would add to that stress.
“As businesses, we’re all pretty on edge about what’s going to happen … and we’re scared,” she said.
A number of other downtown business owners wrote letters to the city, urging councillors not to approve the government’s request. They said while programs and services are needed for the city’s homeless population, this is not the right location for them.
“We believe that small businesses in our neighbourhood will suffer and jobs will be lost if the City of Yellowknife permits a day shelter at this location,” wrote Terry Hartwright, general manager of the Black Knight Pub.
Sara Chorostkowski, representing the territorial government, said a wall would be built between the former SideDoor building and Overlander Sports.
She said the shelter would have a high staff-to-client ratio, an early intervention policy, and a supervisor on site at all times with regular patrols of the area.
The government is open to other suggestions, Chorostkowski said, and wants to build a relationship with neighbouring businesses to address concerns.
Councillor Niels Konge, who strongly opposed the territory’s proposal last week, noted some residents had contacted him asking him “to be compassionate” on the subject.
He said that could mean either being compassionate to the city’s homeless population or to local businesses.
“In this case, we very much need to pick sides,” he said.
“I am choosing to be compassionate to the business people.”
Councillor Stacie Smith said she felt the city was being put in the middle of those two sides. She said the former SideDoor building was not the best location for a day shelter.
“It doesn’t matter how we choose, we’re not going to satisfy everybody,” she said, adding she was disappointed the NWT government left it to the “ninth hour” to come up with a solution.
As an alternative to using the former SideDoor building, Konge recommended the NWT government rent tents from Discovery Mining Services – which provides shelters for remote exploration camps.
He suggested more suitable locations would be the parking lot between the Union of Northern Workers building on 53 Street and Frame Lake, near the tennis courts, or beside the city’s fieldhouse, adding the territory could provide transportation to those sites.
Chorostkowski said the territory considered using tents for the temporary day shelter but was concerned about how staff would control access in and out of that space, and screen clients for symptoms of Covid-19.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said Discovery Mining Services’ tents have only one access point and, if the territory used two tents, a dedicated space for sober clients could be created – one recommendation from a 2019 evaluation of the permanent day shelter and sobering centre.
That report also found clients were willing to go to a location outside the city’s downtown as long as they were provided transportation, Alty noted.
‘The Band-Aid isn’t working’
Konge and Smith said the territorial government needs to look at another, more permanent facility to address homelessness and addictions issues, rather than temporary solutions.
“Stop putting Band-Aids on the situation … and actually invest in a place that is meant specifically for this,” Smith said. “The Band-Aid isn’t working. The Band-Aid seems to come off every time.”
Chorostkowski said the government is working on long-term solutions and the day shelter is only meant to help meet the needs of the city’s homeless population during the pandemic. The government is asking to use the city-owned building from September 2020 to the end of March 2021.
“I really do worry about what options there will be for people …. and what matters folks might take in their hands if they don’t have a warm, safe place to go,” Chorostkowski said.
Since April, the territorial government has been running a day shelter at the Salvation Army’s church in Yellowknife as capacity at the permanent day shelter and sobering centre has been reduced to 20 clients.
Chorostkowski said 30 to 50 people use the temporary day shelter but the present agreement with the Salvation Army is coming to an end as the organization wants to resume church services.
The government has looked for other locations, she continued, including territorially and privately-owned buildings, but has been unsuccessful. The government has not heard back about whether it could use a vacant building that formerly housed a car dealership on the corner of 49 Avenue and 48 Street.
Konge asked whether capacity could be increased at the permanent day shelter. He noted that, according to a recent CBC article, the emergency warming shelter in Inuvik is exempt from the territory’s indoor gathering restrictions and clients aren’t socially distancing because of space constraints.
Chorostkowski said she was surprised to read that as the chief public health officer told her there is no exemption for social services like shelters. She said she had asked the chief public health officer for clarification on the subject.
Mayor Alty questioned whether the permanent shelter in Yellowknife could increase capacity if wearing masks were made mandatory. Chorostkowski said she didn’t know but would look into it.
‘Covid is the virus… not people’
Councillor Julian Morse said while he is “unequivocally” supportive of a day shelter as a concept, he remained “hesitant” to approve the territory’s request.
Morse felt business owners’ concerns were legitimate as he said there had been many “incidents of criminality” around the permanent day shelter, including an attack that lead to a man’s death. He said he was also concerned about the safety of shelter users, noting they “can’t be lumped into one category” and many don’t cause issues in the community.
Morse said he would like to see the territory explore alternatives to the former SideDoor building and come up with a more detailed risk mitigation strategy, rather than just a promise to address concerns.
“I want to make sure all possible stones are not unturned and we really make sure this is a last resort,” he said.
Shauna Morgan was the only councillor who said she was “inclined” to approve the territory’s request – as long as the lease included explicit mitigation measures and the city could terminate the agreement within 30 days if issues “got out of hand.”
Morgan said there is a need for the day shelter and she is not convinced a better solution exists to make sure there are enough places for vulnerable people to go during the winter.
Morgan acknowledged there’s “no easy fix” and that there will be “problems and hiccups along the way.” But she said it’s important for people to remember they are talking about members of the community, not a “disease or scourge” or virus that needs to be contained.
“Covid is the virus we’re struggling with here, not people,” she said.
Mayor Alty said given the majority of councillors did not support the territory’s request, the NWT government should look at alternative options and come back to the city with a proposal if no other options exist.