The NWT government and some Yellowknife shelter users say they’re disappointed city councillors have rejected an initial proposal to house a temporary day shelter in a downtown building.
The territorial Department of Health and Social Services had requested to use the city-owned Mine Rescue Building, on the corner of 50 Street and 49 Avenue, as a place for people experiencing homelessness to sleep, get warm, eat, and socialize during the day until the end of March 2021.
The building was formerly home to SideDoor’s youth resource centre. Nearby businesses such as Overlander Sports and the Black Knight Pub raised objections to the government’s request, citing a potential negative impact on staff and customers.
Earlier this week, having heard that feedback, Yellowknife councillors told the territorial government to look at other options.
As the majority of councillors opposed the proposal during a discussion on Monday, it won’t receive an official vote at a regular council meeting.
“We are naturally disappointed by the City of Yellowknife’s decision not to vote on this proposal,” said Damien Healy, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services, by email.
“We will need to find a solution before the winter sets in and our vulnerable residents are exposed. We have tried a number of locations with no success to date and we are open to locations from business owners and city officials.”
The NWT government had been running a temporary day shelter at a space provided by the Salvation Army. It’s needed as capacity has been reduced at the permanent day shelter and sobering centre, on 50 Street, due to social distancing requirements.
The territory’s agreement with the Salvation Army ended on July 31 as the organization wanted to return the space to its regular use as a church.
‘Only one spot to go’
The government says 30 to 50 people were using the shelter daily.
Many of those people now drop by Aspen Apartments to get food and socialize outside. The building is being used by the territorial government as a temporary self-isolation space for people experiencing homelessness who are awaiting Covid-19 test results or are sick.
One woman outside the building, who asked Cabin Radio that she not be identified, said when she went to Aspen Apartments at lunch on Tuesday, they were out of food.
“I’ve never had that happen over at the Salvation Army,” she said. “So that sucked this afternoon, there wasn’t even breakfast, supper left over, nothing.”
The woman said she has been living in a tent with her partner for the past few months as shelters in the city are restricted to either men or women.
“It’d be cool if they could find a facility where they could actually have women in there because, over at the Salvation Army, there’s no women allowed there,” she said. “We’ve only got one spot to go, but it’d be nice to have somewhere else to hang out instead of there.”
The woman said she was angry when she learned that businesses beside the Mine Rescue Building had asked the city to reject the temporary day shelter proposal.
“Those guys are not getting my business and I’ll tell my other friends not to shop there either,” she said.
A man who used the day shelter at the Salvation Army said people’s belongings that were kept in the space had to be moved, and his were put in storage.
Several people outside the day shelter and sobering centre expressed concern to Cabin Radio that if another location isn’t found, people could end up having to sleep outside during the winter in freezing temperatures.
Businesses opposed shelter location
In the lead-up to Monday’s discussion, some Yellowknife residents contacted the city to say they supported the temporary day shelter proposal – asking councillors to “be compassionate” to people experiencing homelessness.
Meanwhile, several downtown businesses wrote to the city asking them to reject the request, citing concerns with the permanent day shelter on another block of 50 Street.
“There was, like every issue, those who are for it and those who are against it,” Mayor Rebecca Alty said.
She said the city did not hear directly from members of the homeless population nor anyone representing them.
Sandra Stirling, one of the owners of Overlander Sports – which is directly beside the Mine Rescue Building – said she was “relieved” the proposal is not going ahead. She told Cabin Radio she was worried about the safety of her customers and staff.
“Given the atmosphere that occurs at the existing day shelter downtown, my main concern was that was just going to repeat itself over here,” she said.
“That kind of behaviour I don’t think is compatible with the service that we’re trying to provide to Yellowknifers. It’s a safe, family-friendly location where people can come and not have to worry about being harassed, yelled at, accosted, or don’t have to see anything that’s, you know, dangerous and disturbing for children.”
The territorial government had proposed a number of measures designed to minimize disruption the shelter could cause to the neighbourhood. Those included installing a fence, staff patrols, and ongoing communication with businesses.
The GNWT also noted the number of calls to RCMP at the Salvation Army shelter dropped after staff met with shelter users to discuss their responsibilities.
There were a total of 59 incidents at the temporary shelter since it opened in April, eight involving an outside disturbance where RCMP were called.
Between April and July, the number of incidents fell from 22 to 13.
Last week, representatives from the Department of Health and Social Services told councillors they had searched “high and low” for a location for the day shelter, including government-owned buildings and private businesses like the Centre Square Mall and the Raven Pub.
They said the Mine Rescue Building, which city administration had suggested as an option, was the only one that met their needs.
‘Not all stones have been turned yet’
Stirling said she feels the government does have other options, however, and should have found a location sooner, rather than leaving it until the agreement with the Salvation Army ended.
“I don’t think they’re looking hard enough,” she said. “They’re just looking for something quick and easy.”
Stirling added she believes the government should be taking homelessness and surrounding issues more seriously.
“I’ve lived here for over 40 years, and it’s just getting worse and worse every year,” she said. “There’s something driving that and they need to get to the root of that issue and fix it.”
City councillors suggested the NWT government look into renting temporary tent shelters, like those used at exploration camps, as a possible solution. They also recommended the department research whether wearing masks in the permanent shelter would allow it to increase capacity – something the city is looking at doing to increase capacity of services like public transit.
The territorial government said it is also examining the possibility of using a vacant building that once housed an auto dealership at the corner of 49 Avenue and 48 Street.
“I think there are still a few options. Not all stones have been turned yet,” Alty said.