Northwest Territories health officials are examining alternative locations for a Yellowknife temporary day shelter after their initial proposal was rejected by city councillors.
On Monday, representatives from the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services shared several options they’re considering – including city, territorial, and privately-owned facilities – to gauge the approval of Yellowknife councillors.
The territorial government will have to file a development permit and get council approval before any new shelter can open.
“We’re just looking to cross anything off the list that council wouldn’t be supportive of in the future,” Mayor Rebecca Alty explained.
Among the territory’s proposed options were an Aurora College building at the northern end of Franklin Avenue, the city’s public library or library meeting room, the Multiplex’s DND gym, H&R Block on 47 Street, and the Kingpin Bowling Centre.
The government is also considering putting temporary buildings in one of several potential locations: the city’s old visitor centre parking lot, the former site of YWCA’s Rockhill apartment building, or the parking lots of the Multiplex, Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, or Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
Perry Heath, the department’s director of infrastructure planning, said temporary structures aren’t ideal due to physical limitations, security challenges, inspection requirements, and a significant amount of work to connect them to services.
Territorial officials said a temporary day shelter is needed until at least March 31, 2021 – especially with cold weather approaching – as capacity at the city’s permanent day shelter and sobering centre is reduced due to Covid-19 physical distancing requirements.
Under the territory’s pandemic recovery plan, capacity at indoor shelters can’t increase until phase three – which is only due to kick in once a second wave of infections has come and gone in Canada and the US.
The day shelter provides people experiencing homelessness a place to get warm, eat, use the washroom, take a nap, access to wifi and recreation, and other services and supports.
Among the territory’s requirements for a day shelter location are that it is close to the downtown core, has no stairs that might cause trips and falls, can accommodate 30 people with physical distancing, has separate washrooms for staff and users, provides a kitchen, and includes a staff office and break room.
“I think at this point we are very far into our search,” said Sara Chorostkowski, the NWT’s director of mental wellness and addictions recovery.
“We’re in a place where we’re maybe not going to get everything on our list. We’re looking at anything that might even approximate our needs at this point.”
The majority of councillors were not in favour of using city facilities for a day shelter – particularly the library, which has been open to the public on a by-appointment basis since early July.
Several councillors noted the library can only be accessed through Centre Square Mall by stairs or elevator, which could pose a challenge.
Councillor Niels Konge said he would like to have seen the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre itself listed as an option. He questioned why more GNWT-owned buildings weren’t being considered.
“I’m quite disappointed to not see it on the list,” he said.
“It has everything that they’re asking for and could quite easily be converted for this use.”
Health officials, however, said most GNWT-owned buildings located downtown are office buildings unsuitable for a shelter. Many territorial employees have returned to the office after working from home during the onset of the pandemic.
All city councillors and Mayor Alty said they were in favour of the Aurora College building being used, while many were in support of transforming H&R Block or the bowling alley.
“What an awesome choice. I would enthusiastically vote in favour of such a thing,” Councillor Robin Williams said of the college space.
Councillor Stacie Smith, however, noted the bowling alley is located across from the Foster Family Coalition, adding children accessing those services may have family members who use the day shelter.
“It’s something that these little eyes shouldn’t have to see,” she said. “These are little people that we should also be protecting.”
Councillors were split on whether they supported temporary structures and where they should be placed in the city. Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan said they were opposed to that option unless it was “a last resort.” Other councillors said they would approve a temporary location at Rockhill or the old visitor centre.
“Anything outside of the downtown, for me … negates the purpose,” Morse said.
“I think we need to be careful that the solution doesn’t create a problem.”
Last month, city councillors rejected the territory’s request to use the city-owned Mine Rescue Building, which formerly housed SideDoor’s youth resource centre. Councillors cited concerns from neighbouring business owners, who had written to city administration asking council not to approve a shelter at the location.
‘We’re closing doors’
On Monday, Neesha Rao and Nick Sowsun – organizers of a group calling itself Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown – said the day shelter discussion should focus on the safety of shelter users and harm reduction.
They expressed concern that the city’s decisions lacked objectivity and had been made without data.
Michael Fatt, co-ordinator of the Common Ground homelessness employment program in Yellowknife, added that the former SideDoor building would have been an ideal location for a shelter. He spoke out against what he called an “us versus them” mentality.
“We are the people of Yellowknife and we as Yellowknife have a problem,” he said. “Let’s deal with our problem, let’s help our people.”
Under the city’s bylaws, councillors cannot reconsider the NWT government’s proposal to use the SideDoor location for six months, unless the territory submits a new application addressing the reasons for the initial rejection.
Fatt said he faced his own challenges getting off the street in the city, adding it can be difficult for people to know where to turn. He said programming and supports need to be centralized in one location.
“I think what’s happening is we’re closing doors as opposed to opening doors,” he said.
“What we need is to have more doors. That’s the bottom line.”