Several Yellowknife residents are calling on the city to work with the territorial government to establish an emergency shelter downtown, before cold winter weather hits.
Last month, city councillors rejected the territorial government’s proposal to run a temporary day shelter out of the city-owned Mine Rescue Building, which formerly housed SideDoor’s youth resource centre for 20 years. They cited concerns about the impact a downtown shelter could have on neighbouring businesses.
Now, a group calling itself Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown has penned an open letter to mayor and council, along with NWT MLAs, asking them to work together on a solution.
By Monday morning, 89 people had added their signatures.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to do this is to send the message that a lot of people who live in Yellowknife want our city to take care of its people, and care about our street-involved population,” said Neesha Rao, interim executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, who helped to coordinate the letter’s publication.
Representatives from the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services say a new space is needed for people experiencing homelessness to get warm, eat, and socialize, after a temporary day shelter at the Salvation Army closed so the space could return to its regular use as a church.
The territorial government and some day shelter users told Cabin Radio they were disappointed by the city’s decision to reject the Mine Rescue Building proposal, expressing concern that people could end up sleeping outside in below freezing temperatures. Shelters across the territory have said they are worried about having to turn people away during the cold months due to pandemic restrictions.
“We’re talking about people’s lives here, people who might have to be outside in the cold in minus 40-degree weather. We’re talking about human life, human dignity, respect for people,” Rao said.
“That narrative … has kind-of been lost in some of the city’s policy calculations.”
The letter was first reported by NNSL.
The city-owned Mine Rescue Building on the corner of 50 Street and 49 Avenue. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
Prior to council’s decision, several downtown businesses wrote to city officials imploring them not to approve the temporary day shelter at the Mine Rescue Building. They raised concerns that issues with the permanent day shelter and sobering centre could also affect their establishments.
“It is a challenge, the balancing between sometimes-competing priorities,” Mayor Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio. “A lot of council felt that it wouldn’t be the best location, which is why they … wanted the GNWT to look at a few more options.”
Rao said she’s upset the issue has been framed as one of local businesses versus the street-involved population.
“Those are two groups who’ve been harmed the most by the global pandemic,” she said.
“I think we don’t need to create this wedge issue between those two groups.”
Rao noted that while downtown businesses were consulted about the day shelter, there was no assessment of how not providing a shelter could impact businesses throughout Yellowknife.
“People are still going to need a space to use in the winter, and they’ll probably find somewhere else to go,” she said.
Letter co-organizer Nick Sowsun said the city should have done more to consider the perspectives of the street-involved population, frontline workers, or medical professionals. He added the city has acknowledged the importance of emergency day centres in its 10-year plan to end homelessness.
“It’s important that they are following through with their commitment … and thinking about how they’re going to achieve those goals,” he said.
The letter calls on the city to follow through on its commitment to reconciliation and speak out against “the stigma and systemic racism that harm our street-involved citizens and therefore minimize us all.”
It notes many people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife are Indigenous and impacted by intergenerational trauma.
City, GNWT working together, says mayor
In an emailed statement, a representative for the Department of Health and Social Services said territorial officials are working with the city to find a solution before the winter months arrive.
“We are encouraged by the social media outreach and glad that residents have the same position as the GNWT, that our most vulnerable residents require support,” the department spokesperson wrote. “When a solution is found, we will communicate widely.”
Mayor Alty confirmed the city is working with the territorial government to find an alternative location for a day shelter.
“People can’t publicly see that staff are continuing to work together but they are, and we’ll be bringing forward some options in the future,” she said.
During the city’s consideration of the Mine Rescue Building, councillors suggested a number of alternatives. Those included a vacant downtown building that once housed a car dealership, temporary structures like those used at exploration camps, or increasing capacity at the permanent day shelter.
Under the city’s current zoning bylaw, council cannot reconsider the GNWT’s proposal to use the Mine Rescue Building for the next six months, unless the territorial government comes forward with a new application that addresses concerns councillors gave for the refusal.
Any location will have to go through the city’s zoning bylaw process, which includes approval from council, before a shelter can be opened.
Rao and Sowsun are set to speak to councillors about the temporary day shelter at Monday night’s council meeting.
Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council – which runs the existing, permanent day shelter and sobering centre – and Andrew Benson, a shelter worker with the GNWT, are also scheduled to present to the city on the subject on Monday.