The quest for a new Yellowknife day shelter may be nearing an end. City council on Thursday voted to release funding for the creation of a temporary day shelter on city property.
That vote followed months of debate about where a temporary shelter should go. The NWT government is trying to find somewhere to put a shelter but the city rejected the territory’s bid to use the downtown Mine Rescue Building, saying nearby businesses would suffer.
A temporary shelter is needed because pandemic restrictions have reduced capacity elsewhere.
The money will come from a federal grant to the city that was larger than expected.
The location, size, cost, and amenities to be included in the structure remain unknown. The one certainty is that the temporary structure will have to reside on city-owned property.
Thursday’s vote allows the city to get the ball rolling on hiring a contractor to put up a temporary structure that can be turned into a day shelter, even before the territorial government – responsible for operating any such shelter – has endorsed or formally accepted this solution.
GNWT representatives are expected to present to city councillors on Monday regarding an alternative: using a building on 44 Street, near St Pat’s high school. The school and many parents have already voiced opposition to that plan.
Even if the city’s solution proceeds, it could be weeks before a temporary shelter is built and opened.
A tender for the project could be released as soon as Friday according to Mayor Rebecca Alty and city administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett.
“We need an interim solution right now to get through a second wave of Covid-19,” Alty said.
“The motion is broad. There’s no specific location identified other than it has to be on city land, and there’s no set budget because we want to get this going as soon as possible.”
Alty favours having the city build a shelter on its own land because there’s no possibility for anyone to appeal.
By contrast, using a regular downtown building could be subject to appeal by nearby residents or businesses, potentially delaying the process and holding up the shelter for months.
Four possible locations
Funding for the project comes from the federal government’s Reaching Home initiative, which seeks to address homelessness and can assist with emergency sheltering needs during the pandemic.
After almost three hours of Thursday’s emergency session, the motion to release some of that funding passed with four members of council in favour and only Councillor Shauna Morgan opposed.
Morgan was not opposed to a city-owned temporary structure but wanted to hear more about the GNWT’s plan on Monday before reaching a decision.
Bassi-Kellett said staff had been “working at absolute warp speed” since they found out the city was receiving more Reaching Home funding than originally expected.
Four locations were proposed by the city for a temporary structure. They are:
- the parking area or grassy area at the southern end of Somba K’e Park;
- the Fieldhouse south parking lot;
- the asphalt area immediately adjacent to the Niven tennis courts; and
- the grassy area at Fritz Theil Park, adjacent to Franklin Avenue.
“Three of the locations I see as non-starters,” said Councillor Julian Morse. “They aren’t in the downtown core.”
Only the Somba K’e Park option would be located downtown, which advocates say is crucial to ensuring access to other supports.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife expressed concern, saying the city needs to have more information before moving forward.
Neesha Rao, interim executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, told councillors she disapproved of “issuing a blank cheque” for a temporary shelter despite a lack of information.
Rao said there is no concrete proof the temporary structure will take less time to get up and running than the proposed location on 44 Street, and councillors should not be so quick to assume that location will face an appeal.
She questioned whether the city’s plan “will serve the best interests of people experiencing homelessness in our community.”
Rao said: “I’m not interested in wasting time. It’s October 29, it’s -9C. This should have been resolved in September. What I’m saying is we don’t know this is going to be faster than a building that already exists.”
Concerns were also raised about vacancies on the community advisory board that deals with homelessness in Yellowknife. Thursday’s special council meeting followed a meeting of the advisory board earlier this week to discuss solutions for a temporary shelter.
Two out of nine positions on the advisory board are unfilled. Without a fully staffed board, Rao said, she did not believe all the right groups were being consulted or represented.
Only four members were present when the advisory board met on Tuesday to make the recommendation that triggered Thursday’s meeting. Two of those who were present sit on council.
‘99.99-percent chance’ of appeal
Nick Sowsun, founder of the Facebook group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, said both the city’s plan and the 44 Street option need to be considered side by side, with more information.
“Any site that is appropriate and acceptable to this population, you’re going to have opposition to that,” Sowsun said.
“Your job is to make the best decision for the whole community and, in particular, for this group of the population that doesn’t have a voice in this process and isn’t being heard.”
Alty told Cabin Radio she was almost certain the GNWT’s 44 Street location would face a time-consuming appeal.
“I see a 99.99-percent chance that somebody in the community is going to appeal the 44 Street location,” she said.
Council was also told the city had already received a letter from Yellowknife Catholic Schools, which runs St Pat’s high school, opposing the 44 Street option. (In a tweet, former Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck wrote: “Gotta wonder, what would Jesus do?”)
Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council – which operates the current day shelter on 50 Street – said she knew of “at least 10” people who would submit an appeal if 44 Street was chosen.
McKee said parents had expressed worries about youth being exposed to illegal substances.
Best solution for a bad situation?
Councillor Morse said he was “reluctantly in favour” of the motion, describing both options as less than ideal as temperatures grow colder by the day.
“There may not really be a better option on the table,” he said, “but it’s one I do with great reluctance and certain amount of concern.”
Morgan worried that if the project fails, money would be wasted and people without homes would be in an even worse situation.
“These are heavy burdens that we have to be responsible for now,” she said.
“I’m not comfortable with voting to use an unspecified amount of money for something when we don’t know what it is or what it’s going to look like.”
Alty told council waiting for more information would bog down the process, creating more procedural hurdles before development can begin.
“In this case, any delay is unacceptable,” she said.
“It’s not the perfect one. I wish we could take the time to fully look at the budget, do a risk analysis, all that stuff. But we don’t have the luxury of time,
“We can take the luxury of time and keep people in the cold, or we can move forward and get the plane moving and built at the same time.”