Staff decry working conditions at YK’s day and sobering centre
Management failings at Yellowknife’s day and sobering centre are risking the safety of employees and people who use the centre, current and former workers have told Cabin Radio.
Six current and recent employees at the downtown centre – each asking for anonymity to disclose concerns they were not authorized to publicly discuss – allege inadequate provision of training, a disconnect between management and staff, and a lack of oversight and accountability, among other issues.
One former employee – referred to in this report as Employee A – told Cabin Radio that while they loved working with people experiencing homelessness and addictions, they resigned after working at the centre for more than a year, describing a “really toxic environment” as issues worsened.
“That was one of the best decisions I made for my mental well-being and my health. But I cried and I’m still struggling with [the fact] that I resigned,” Employee A said. “If someone else was running that place, I would definitely go back.”
The combined day and sobering centre on Yellowknife’s 50 Street is operated by the NWT Disabilities Council under a contract with the NWT Health and Social Services Authority. It opened in September 2018.
The day shelter provides people experiencing homelessness a place to spend time and access services during the day. The sobering centre, meanwhile, gives people who are intoxicated a safe, warm place to sleep at night.
In response to a request for an interview, Denise McKee – executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council – issued a written statement to Cabin Radio. She said the organization would not discuss issues at the centre, citing the confidentiality of employees and the NWT Disabilities Council’s legal responsibilities.
“The NWT Disabilities Council takes the care, welfare, safety and security of its staff and clients very seriously and adheres to health and safety legislation and all contractual requirements,” McKee’s statement read.
“We have a clear internal reporting process for the communication of concerns to which we respond appropriately and in a timely manner.”
The manager of the day and sobering centre did not respond to a separate interview request.
‘Where do our priorities really lie?’
A comprehensive 24-page document, created by an employee dubbed Employee B in November 2020 and shared with Cabin Radio, outlines staff concerns in detail. That document and supporting information also appear to have been shared with the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission.
The document highlights workplace safety as a main area of concern, claiming the centre does not do enough to prevent or mitigate violence or follow up when it happens.
A revision of the NWT Disabilities Council’s workplace violence policy, dated January 31, 2019, states employees will be trained in non-violent physical crisis intervention. That training includes de-escalation techniques, guidance related to personal safety, and instructions on debriefing.
In an incident report dated August 8, 2020, however, a staff member stated employees still needed to receive training in physical defence and non-aggressive removal or securement of people who pose a danger. The incident in question involved a person throwing a drink at, pushing, and then charging at an employee while their back was turned.
Employee B said they did not receive non-violent crisis intervention training until they had been working at the centre for five months.
A memo to staff dated September 2, 2020, indicates some employees had been enrolled in a non-violent crisis intervention training course scheduled for later that month. The memo states there had been multiple incidents where staff were “in such close proximity” that they were “unnecessarily” in harm’s way when people were “acting out.“
A worker referred to as Employee C told Cabin Radio that while they had asked for this form of training, it had been cancelled several times because of Covid-19.
“We’re making the liquor stores open even when we were in isolation, but we can’t make de-escalation for the homeless Indigenous population possible? Where do our priorities really lie?” Employee C questioned.
Another worker, Employee D, said staff may not be prepared for every situation they have to face. Employee D recommended that staff receive more training and guidance about how to handle people experiencing mental illness and situations involving violence and aggression.
Documents reviewed by Cabin Radio show staff have asked management to develop clear, consistent procedures to follow when responding to cases of sexual assault or helping people who are suicidal – procedures that consider the safety of both people using the centre and staff.
Within their 24-page document, Employee B alleges new staff are not informed about high-risk locations at the centre, such as a narrow hallway in the sobering centre where a number of concerning incidents are said to have taken place. Employee B also claims procedures don’t identify roles at the centre in which staff members are more likely to face violence, such as the triage position, which involves patting down intoxicated shelter users and doing bed checks alone.
The document alleges other safety controls – like security cameras, live monitoring, and minimum staffing requirements – aren’t consistently in place. Those concerns could not be independently verified and the NWT Disabilities Council declined the opportunity to speak on the matter.
“Staff safety is not a priority for the sobering centre,” a fifth worker, Employee E, said. A sixth employee, not directly quoted in this report, corroborated some of the matters discussed by other workers.
Lack of violence controls
In cases where people who use the centre have been violent, they are often restricted from entering the centre for several days or weeks. Those restrictions are recorded in a log.
However, staff said the log does not include photos or a physical description of the people in question, making restrictions difficult to enforce.
For example, an incident report states that on November 21, 2020, a person who should have been barred from entering gave a false name and was allowed access to the shelter. That person had been ordered by RCMP not to come within a certain distance of the centre’s on-site medic. The person was ultimately removed from the centre by police.
Documents show staff have made recommendations to management to improve the visibility of the centre’s plexiglass front window and mandate the inclusion of photo identification in the restriction log.
Employee C told Cabin Radio the log is “super vague.” Staff instead do their best to communicate information about who shouldn’t be entering, and anything else relevant to the log, in person.
“We do a fantastic job because it’s our butts on the line if the person at the screening position at the front doesn’t know who not to let in,” Employee C said.
Employee B’s document alleges there is no process for workers exposed to violence to be assessed or treated, and claims staff are not properly informed of the injury reporting process. The document claims workplace incidents are not reported to the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission as required.
“The fact that there are zero reports does not demonstrate a safe workplace, it demonstrates a lack of reporting,” Employee B’s document states.
Claims related to the filing of incident reports could not be independently verified. The Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission did not address Cabin Radio’s questions about the day and sobering centre, saying details of investigations, reports or directions related to specific employers are protected under privacy legislation.
There have, however, been publicly documented cases of violence at the centre. In July 2016, a woman was sentenced to 14 months in jail after throwing a knife, then a coffee mug, barely missing a worker inside the sobering centre. Neighbours have documented violence immediately outside the building.
Employee A noted many people using the centre have experienced trauma and are under the influence of alcohol and other substances.
“Alcohol is a very toxic substance. You’re putting fire to what’s ready to explode,” they said.
Employee C described the centre as a “volatile” environment that can be dirty, noisy and dangerous.
“Definitely I think it comes with the territory,” Employee C said. “I don’t think that somebody who wants to feel completely safe all the time could really hack the job.”
The Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission said it responds to all reports of unsafe work within three days and follows up with an on-site inspection when necessary. In cases of non-compliance with safety regulations, the inspector will identify corrective actions that employers need to carry out by a certain date. In cases with serious violations that are considered “immediately dangerous to life and health,” a stop work order may be issued. The commission declined to provide details specific to the day and sobering centre.
‘It’s her way or nobody’s way’
Documents obtained by Cabin Radio and interviews with current and former staff suggest there is a disconnect between management at the centre, senior figures at the NWT Disabilities Council, and staff at the day and sobering centre.
That disconnect has led to a lack of accountability and oversight, some people with experience working at the centre say. Some accuse the centre’s operator of mistreating employees.
Internal documents show the centre’s manager is expected to be at the facility from 8am until 5pm on weekdays. This means that unless a team leader is scheduled to work on weekends, there is no supervision from a management-level member of staff on Saturdays and Sundays.
Reaching a designated on-call manager can be challenging, other documents suggest, as the on-call role is not compensated. Staff say they are discouraged from contacting the on-call manager and that person cannot always be immediately reached.
A memo from council executive director McKee to staff, dated September 2, 2020, confirms the on-call responsibility does not earn additional pay. The memo notes staff should only contact the on-call manager in case of emergency.
Staff said their concerns and recommendations to management are often left unanswered, dismissed or challenged by leadership.
Several employees, for example, said it took months to replace a squeaky washer and dryer at the centre. The noise had been keeping people awake at night.
“That was definitely affecting their sleep habits and their well-being,” Employee C said. “That was not handled in a timely manner.”
Employees claim members of the NWT Disabilities Council’s senior management rarely visit the day and sobering centre, even though they are responsible for creating its policies and procedures. That means those rules can conflict with day-to-day operations at the centre, staff say.
Employee E said they felt the executive director “micro-manages” the shelter, but her plans don’t always align with the reality on the ground, the employee said.
“It’s her way or nobody’s way,” they said.
Temperature logs kept by centre staff during the pandemic – anyone entering the centre was required to register a temperature check on arrival – suggest the NWT Disabilities Council’s director of programs entered the centre only once between March and November 2020. Multiple members of staff said they only saw the executive director at the centre twice during that time, while attending staff meetings. Temperature logs were not available for the executive director.
Employee B noted there were no visits to the centre by territorial government or City of Yellowknife staff between May and November 2020. They said this demonstrated a lack of external oversight. (The city has no direct role in managing the centre’s operations, but does frequently contribute to meetings about the centre’s management.)
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the NWT Health and Social Services Authority, told Cabin Radio the authority has “the ability to ensure the programs, policies and services at the centre align with the contract agreement.” While the authority “works closely” with the shelter manager and leadership, he said, its staff do not perform any formal inspections.
Maguire said the NWT Disabilities Council provides quarterly reports about the centre to the territorial government Those include information on the delivery of services and staffing model, programming updates, and staff training updates. The council is also required to report any incidents or issues.
Feeling like ‘a scolded toddler’
Some employees alleged mistreatment from management and claimed some workers are vulnerable because of their immigration status, education, or finances.
Two staff members claimed the executive director had yelled at employees and threatened to fire them during staff meetings.
“I’ve got 30 resumés in my office and I could fire anybody in here,” Employee A recalled her saying.
Employee E said people using the centre had observed members of management mistreating staff, which in turn led them to believe there were no consequences for abusing staff.
The perceived mishandling of one incident left Employee E feeling “betrayed” by their employer and like they weren’t valued.
Employee C said they felt communication from management was largely punitive instead of providing constructive criticism or pre-emptive information to staff.
“I very much feel often like a scolded toddler at that job, from management,” Employee C said.
“It’s not like, ‘Here’s how to help our people.’ It’s like, ‘Here, figure out how to help our clients until you do it the way I don’t like and then I’m going to crap on you.’”
Documents claim staff are not properly compensated for overtime, which is common due to staff absenteeism and high turnover. Employee C said it’s “a real thorn in the side” of staff that the responsibility to find someone to cover for their shift lies with them, not management, if they are sick or have an emergency.
Staff are not allowed to leave the centre during their lunch and other breaks according to a memo dated June 25, 2020.
“I am not sure if this is against legislation but to me does not seem fair to staff,” said Employee B. “Staff are working in a very demanding job that requires a lot of mental awareness and physical strain. If they are not allowed to leave the premises, they are given no opportunity for a break from the challenges and strains of the job.”
Staff also claim that during the 2019 Christmas vacation period, they were excluded from a party held for corporate staff that involved a catered dinner. Only after staff complained, they said, were centre employees given pizza and pop.
“Attendance to the pizza party event was very low because of the disappointment and disparity in events. Centre staff felt like they were being treated unfairly as they work for the same organization,” a document related to the event reads.
No dinner or special event was planned for people who use the centre as staff were told a turkey dinner was being served at the Salvation Army. Leftovers from the catered party were said to have been brought to the centre the next day.
‘It’s a very big problem’
Beyond complaints about management, some employees shared concerns about other staff members, saying not all workers appear to genuinely care about the people they are paid to support.
“They’re just there for the paycheque,” Employee A said.
“Each and every one of these homeless people didn’t end up walking into that shelter today and say, ‘I want to be an alcoholic.’ Each and every one of them has a story.”
Employee A said the NWT Disabilities Council should hire more Indigenous staff who understand the impacts of residential school and people who have experience working with addictions. They said that knowledge is not currently valued by management.
Employee E said many staff have become disillusioned.
“People have come to that point where you just do it for the job, for the money, because things will break down and never get fixed,” they said.
There have been reports of staff sleeping or being on their phones while on shift at the centre. Employee A said that’s an issue as it means staff are not interacting with people using the centre and might not hear someone in distress.
“It’s a very big problem,” they said.
An email sent to staff in October 2020, titled “Sleeping on shift,” warns employees that cameras would be installed inside the building to eliminate blind spots staff were allegedly using to “engage in these at-risk behaviours.”
“It is my hope that the persons sleeping at work will immediately stop and begin to understand that you are placing yourselves, your co-worker and clients’ safety at risk,” the email states.
‘Once Covid hit, everything stopped’
Finally, some employees highlighted a discrepancy between programs and services the centre claims to be delivering and those that are actually offered.
In six months working at the centre, Employee B said they never witnessed any of the services listed in a brochure actually being offered. Those included help with housing, resumé writing and job prep, and special events on holidays.
”Due to the lack of training and the lack of leadership direction, support workers are not offering these services,” Employee B wrote. “This is a mismanagement of resources as support workers could assist in the delivery of these services, increasing the availability of services.”
Programs have been reduced at the day shelter because of Covid-19 restrictions. For example, there are restrictions on the use of games, cards, and art supplies, and the holding of special events. Employee A said a caseworker used to provide beadwork and painting supplies but that stopped during the pandemic.
“Once Covid hit, everything stopped,” they said.
“I really understand what’s going on with this Covid and the space they have in there,” they continued. “I totally understand that, and I agree with that.”
For several months, staff said there was no case worker at the facility, meaning there was nobody designated to help people book or attend appointments.
“It was very terrible. It was very hard,” Employee A told Cabin Radio. “There was nothing.”
Despite this, some staff claimed the centre was trying to offer services beyond its mandate.
While the sobering centre is designated for use by intoxicated people, for example, Employee B said sober people were being checked in – meaning the centre reached capacity faster and intoxicated people were turned away.
“Intoxicated people are higher-risk than a sober person for being exposed to the elements and incurring injury/death. That is why the sobering centre was created,” Employee B wrote. “By providing services to individuals who do not meet the requirements of intoxication, the intended population of the service suffers.”
Two employees claimed the executive director was insistent that the centre continue providing services to a person who had repeatedly used violence, even though staff expressed concern that they were not equipped to deal with the person’s aggression, nor their mental and physical health issues.
Employee C told Cabin Radio that while the shelter can help vulnerable people toward recovering more agency over their lives, it’s not as effective as an on-the-land healing camp or detox centre.
“I feel like as though we’re just letting our clients die slower than they normally would,” Employee C said. “I try my best each and every day – I’m sure that lots of people try their best each and every day – but are we really making a difference in these homeless people’s lives? I’m hard pressed to say the answer to that is yes.”
An independent evaluation of the day shelter and sobering centre, published in August 2019, recommended that the facility offer more programs and services in the long term including expanded medical services and harm reduction and treatment programs.
The report noted that many people who use the centre said they feel safe and respected there, and many stakeholders feel the sobering centre is a positive service that is needed.
In April 2020, the shelter was converted into an isolation centre with a managed alcohol program for 29 high-risk homeless adults for one month. The NWT Disabilities Council said this “sheltering in place” model helped participants to decrease their substance use and find more stable housing.
Can things get better?
Many of the employees that spoke to Cabin Radio said they believe things can improve at the day and sobering centre. They called on the NWT Disabilities Council to listen to staff and implement recommendations.
“I really wish that it would change. There’s so many people that left there,” Employee E said, referring to former staff.
Employee C suggested the centre’s workers should take on specific roles based on their preferences, skills and strengths, rather than requiring all employees to work all available positions.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about us not having any agency in which positions we actually work and don’t work,” Employee C said. “If you put the people where they want to be as staff, they’re going to do a better job at that position.”
The same employee recommended improving training on Indigenous culture and history, noting that many people at the centre have been impacted by residential school or the Sixties Scoop. They said that while existing training for staff does cover topics related to Indigenous people, like the fur trade, it does not include information about relevant, contemporary social issues.
“I feel like that eight hours of training was checking some sort of box,” they said.
Sarah Pruys and Ollie Williams contributed reporting.