Emergency shelters across the NWT are anticipating new challenges serving their communities as the first winter of the Covid-19 pandemic approaches.
The biggest problem shelters could face is limited space as they try to work with pandemic-related restrictions designed to protect residents’ health.
Jason Brinson, executive director of the Salvation Army’s emergency men’s shelter in Yellowknife, told Cabin Radio people could be turned away as temperatures drop and places fill up.
“Certainly, we are concerned as to what will happen when someone shows up at the door and our place is full – what do we do then?” Brinson said.
Prior to the pandemic, the shelter could accommodate 49 people per night. The NWT’s Covid-19 restrictions have reduced that number to 31, including overflow space in the facility’s chapel.
Brinson said shelter staff are looking for solutions ahead of time in case the reduced capacity becomes a problem.
He hopes to work with local partners – other shelters, governments, or even private citizens – to establish a protocol should a client be seeking services when the shelter is already at capacity for the night.
Leaving someone out in the cold is not an option, Brinson said.
“We’re hopeful that process will be developed,” he said.
“We don’t want someone to be turned away from a shelter because they’re full, and then we learn that [they’ve been] found somewhere dead from hypothermia. That’s not acceptable.”
Yellowknife city councillors recently denied permission for the territorial government to open up a temporary day shelter at a downtown building, saying local businesses could be adversely impacted.
The NWT government, acknowledging a shortage of shelter spaces, has said it now faces a race against time to find an appropriate location for a new shelter before the winter.
Inuvik shelter ‘like sardines’
Inuvik is facing similar problems. The town’s warming centre moved back to its original location on Berger St on July 31. In April, the group had moved into vacant Aurora College residences after the territorial government made the space available.
While using Aurora College facilities, the warming centre had access to 30 rooms, four of which were used for quarantine purposes. The other 26 gave clients privacy and space to socially distance.
Executive director Paul Vaudrach said it was a “beautiful facility.”
However, the warming centre was told by the college in July to move out by the end of the month.
By July 31, the warming centre was back at its original location – where Vaudrach says it can expect up to 21 people a day. He worries the Berger St facility doesn’t have enough room to offer real social distancing.
“We just have two rooms, one little section, and they have a mat [for a bed],” Vaudrach said. “And they don’t have two metres’ separation between each other. In other words, they’re just like sardines together. So they’re really incapable of keeping a distance from each other.”
The warming centre is searching for another facility with more space, and the territorial government has offered to help with costs. The search has so far yielded no results.
In Fort Good Hope, the quest for more shelter space has been stalled by construction delays related to Covid19.
James Caesar is executive director of the K’asho Got’ine Housing Society, which runs a transitional men’s shelter in the community.
The shelter building only has three rooms at the moment and is undergoing renovations to add another. The society also plans to build a second shelter for women and children.
However, shipping materials and finding contractors – always an obstacle for the remote hamlet – has been made harder by the pandemic.
“It’s impacting everything,” Caesar said.
Brinson, at the Yellowknife shelter, said those working in sheltering need to take a human approach to the winter ahead.
“When we’re thinking about responding to a public health emergency, we’re responding for the protection of the people. And those who are experiencing homelessness are people,” he said.
“They have the same worries. They have the same hopes, they have the same desires – the basic necessities of life, shelter, warmth, food, clothing – they have all the same basic needs as everybody else.
“And so when we respond to any emergency, we have to include everybody in that response. Leaving one group of people out is not treating them like people.”