The NWT government has been told it cannot use a downtown Yellowknife building as a temporary day shelter as city councillors voted to reject the request.
Councillors had signalled their intention to do so earlier in the month. They followed through on Monday night in a formal vote, which councillors Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan opposed.
The Department of Health and Social Services had asked 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 each day until the end of March 2021.
That request came as a separate GNWT deal with the Salvation Army ran out. The Salvation Army wants to return its building to use as a church, meaning the GNWT needs to find a new space for a temporary shelter.
A temporary shelter is required as the existing day shelter on 50 Street is operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic.
The building was formerly home to SideDoor’s youth resource centre. Nearby businesses like Overlander Sports and the Black Knight Pub raised objections to the territory’s request, citing a potential negative impact on staff and customers.
By formally voting to reject the request, councillors in all likelihood have ensured the building – which is next to Overlander Sports – cannot be used as a day shelter for at least six months.
The city’s zoning bylaw states a request for such a use, once refused, can only be subsequently accepted within six months if the applicant demonstrates they have thoroughly addressed all of the initial concerns.
In other words, the GNWT must now either find a new location for a temporary day shelter or do enough to convince councillors and businesses that the Mine Rescue Building can work.
The territorial government has insisted there are few, if any, alternatives after months of searching.
Some councillors think the territory should use heavy-duty tents, as deployed in industries like mining and exploration, to set up warm, safe spaces some distance from downtown businesses.
While Morgan questioned if such tents could accommodate services like washrooms, phones, internet access, and a place to prepare hot meals, Councillor Niels Konge stated all of those could “be arranged with a little bit of money.”
Most councillors felt that no matter what solution is eventually devised, the Mine Rescue Building should not be part of it.
“I want to be very clear that I do not support a day shelter in that location in our city,” Konge said.
Councillor Robin Williams called on the GNWT to develop a purpose-built facility, stating: “I don’t want to see day shelter services scattered around the city. More temporary stopgaps is not something I’m interested in.”
“We keep getting the poopy end of the stick here,” said Councillor Stacie Smith. “I want the GNWT to go out and find better solutions, go digging for that money that the NWT needs for these services.”
‘What’s actually going to happen?’
Not all councillors saw it that way.
Morgan worried that by rejecting the GNWT’s request and taking the Mine Rescue Building off the table, councillors might actually make the situation worse for local businesses.
“The immediate impact for this winter is where will these people go otherwise? Probably the library, the malls, the entrances to banks,” she said.
“People will go where there are warmer spaces, so that could actually make it worse for a lot of Yellowknife businesses.
“I’m not sure we’re accomplishing what we think we’re going to accomplish by saying no to this. We need to think about what’s actually going to happen.”
While business had opposed the Mine Rescue Building becoming a day shelter, both the territorial government and some people who use Yellowknife’s shelters had voiced disappointment.
But the majority view was expressed by Councillor Steve Payne, who said: “This is all about business for me.”
Payne added: “We had said we wanted to revitalize downtown and it seems like everything we’ve done since has been another nail in the coffin.
“I’m not willing to risk another downtown business.”
Councillor Rommel Silverio said: “I think the GNWT should come to the table with better and clearer proposals and ideas. They need to take this seriously and give us a better choice.”
Where the GNWT turns next in its quest for a suitable shelter space is unclear.
“We will need to find a solution before the winter sets in and our vulnerable residents are exposed,” Department of Health and Social Service spokesperson Damien Healy told Cabin Radio last week.
“We have tried a number of locations with no success to date and we are open to locations from business owners and city officials.”
Morse had suggested tabling Monday’s motion until a later date, which would have allowed the city more flexibility to change its mind if the GNWT came back and said no other location could be found.
While Morgan and Alty supported that idea, the remainder of council rejected it.