The NWT’s chief public health officer on Wednesday declined to involve herself in the increasingly frantic search for a temporary day shelter in downtown Yellowknife.
Speaking to reporters, Dr Kami Kandola was reluctant to commit to using her pandemic emergency powers to either find a shelter space or relax the rules for existing shelters.
Yellowknife’s mayor had been among those suggesting Kandola could step in to help find a resolution.
The Covid-19 pandemic has restricted capacity at the existing 50 Street shelter and the NWT government has been racing to install a new, temporary shelter to provide extra space before winter.
But the territory and City of Yellowknife haven’t yet agreed on a location and are still pursuing multiple options.
Yellowknife city council has voted to release funding for the creation of its own temporary structure, but the GNWT isn’t sure that structure will be suitable and hasn’t committed to using it.
Instead, the GNWT is looking at a vacant warehouse across from St Pat’s high school – a plan supported by some residents but opposed by others, including the school board in question.
On Monday, Alty said she wanted Kandola to use her emergency pandemic powers to help find a solution, either by seizing a building or giving homeless shelters exemptions regarding restrictions on capacity.
(The territory’s Public Health Act states the chief public health officer’s emergency powers – which have already been active for half a year – include the authority to “acquire or use real or personal property, whether private or public.”)
However, Kandola on Wednesday said those powers “are to be used very carefully” and only “to deal with an imminent threat related to Covid-19 transmission.”
She used the example of seizing a building to act as an isolation facility should the hospital be at full capacity, with space needed to treat more patients.
Emergency powers “are not to be used to deliver social programs,” Kandola said. “It’s very specific to responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Some residents calling for action have characterized the shelter issue as one directly related to the pandemic, given the problem is partly created by capacity restrictions brought on by Covid-19.
Nick Sowsun, co-founder of the Facebook group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, earlier told Cabin Radio invoking the Public Health Act would protect those without homes during the pandemic.
“We’re looking at December or January,” he said, assessing the current pace of progress.
“It’s too late. People’s lives are at risk. There’s a real danger someone could die.”
Kandola, though, said everyone has been affected by rules surrounding Covid-19, “not one specific organization.”
“It’s about staying home when you’re sick, wearing a mask, physically distance where you can, washing your hands,” she said. “This is something every business has to do. This is not a unique situation for the people struggling with homelessness.”
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for Kandola’s office, told reporters her role “has to do with communicable diseases,” and said all other questions regarding the day shelter would be better addressed by the Department of Health and Social Services.
The territorial government has committed to building a new permanent shelter by 2023, though that is understood to be a replacement for the 50 Street shelter rather than an additional facility.
Planning for the new facility remains at an early stage, and no location has been confirmed.