The NWT’s health authority says it has launched an investigation into allegations of mismanagement and safety concerns at Yellowknife’s downtown day shelter and sobering centre.
In March, Cabin Radio reported that a number of current and recent employees of the 50 Street centre believe workplace conditions put staff and people who use the facility at risk. They allege inadequate training, understaffing, a lack of accountability and oversight, and the mistreatment of employees.
At the time, the NWT Disabilities Council – which has a contract with the territory’s health authority to run the centre – declined to directly address those allegations. In a written statement, executive director Denise McKee said the council “takes the care, welfare, safety and security of its staff and clients very seriously and adheres to health and safety legislation and contractual requirements.”
The council has a “clear internal reporting process” when it comes to concerns, McKee wrote, adding that leaders “respond appropriately and in a timely manner.”
Further attempts to secure an interview for this report were not successful.
A spokesperson for the NWT Health and Social Services Authority told Cabin Radio the authority’s staff have “been engaged” with the NWT Disabilities Council’s managers and board members. The spokesperson confirmed an investigation into the allegations has begun.
“I want to assure you that this matter is being taken seriously and is being actively investigated by the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority,” NWT health and social services minister Julie Green said in a separate statement.
Green, who represents the Yellowknife Centre district where the centre is located, declined an interview with Cabin Radio.
MLA Katrina Nokleby, who represents the city’s Great Slave district, said by email she was “very concerned” about the allegations.
Nokleby said problems in Yellowknife’s downtown core were a major issue raised by constituents during her election campaign. She said she had taken a tour of the day shelter and sobering centre before her election in 2019, describing the facility as a “tight space” that would be difficult to manage during the pandemic.
“It definitely remains a big concern to me and is one of the reasons I’ve pushed for increased social supports as the pandemic looms on,” Nokleby wrote.
“Our already troubling social issues are being greatly exacerbated and sometimes it seems the senior management of the GNWT just wants to put their heads in the sand. To me, if we don’t acknowledge what our issues and problems are, we will never be able to come up with solutions to them.”
In February, Nokleby and Green butted heads in the Legislative Assembly over mental health supports after Green disputed Nokleby’s assertion that the territory was in a mental health crisis. While both Green and Nokleby filed points of order with the Speaker of the House following a heated exchange, Green ultimately apologized for her remarks.
‘Back to square one’
Business owners near the day shelter and sobering centre say they are worried about conditions outside the facility. While an agreement between the centre and other organizations in the city initially led to improvements, some nearby businesses feel issues have resurfaced during the pandemic.
In 2019, several neighbouring businesses said they feared for workers’ safety and livelihoods as videos of violent incidents on 50 Street were made public. In September that year, a man was killed in an attack outside the centre.
A month later, a good neighbour agreement was established between local businesses and tenants, the day shelter and sobering centre (including its operator the NWT Disabilities Council), the NWT’s health authority, the City of Yellowknife, RCMP, and the territory’s Department of Justice. That agreement aimed to improve communication between the parties to proactively identify and address any crime and nuisance problems.
April Desjarlais, who owns and works in the building next door to the facility, said that agreement was a good step toward accountability. She sits on the good neighbour committee that meets every six weeks.
“Right out of the gate, we did see a lot of good work come from this,” she said.
Desjarlais pointed to foot patrols in the area from centre staff and a policy implemented in December 2019 that barred people who have homes from entering the day shelter.
While that policy was criticized by some, the disabilities council defended the decision, saying it had to focus on support for people without homes when faced with high demand and limited resources.
After the pandemic hit, Desjarlais said, foot patrols stopped and violent incidents returned in what she termed “a full-on rampage.”
“We have gone completely backwards,” she said. “We’re just back to square one. I really feel that we need to get back on track, we can’t be using this pandemic as a crutch any longer.”
‘We want to feel safe again’
Desjarlais said she is optimistic that the health and social services authority and disabilities council will “get back to the heart of the good neighbour agreement.” She said that means ensuring the safety of everyone inside and outside the centre.
“We want to feel safe again in this neighbourhood,” Desjarlais said, emphasizing the foot patrols need to return.
John Williston, who owns the building that houses Subway and Korea House around the corner from the centre, said he has seen problems return. Those include increased garbage, crowding outside the doors of businesses, and urination and defecation, he said.
Williston said the biggest issue is safety, noting there have been several fights inside Subway and workers at Korea House sometimes lock the front doors during business hours out of fear.
Williston said while workers have contacted RCMP, police don’t always respond. He wants a larger police or municipal enforcement presence in the area.
NWT RCMP said police have responded to 1,100 calls for service in the area since the good neighbour agreement was signed. Documents shared with Cabin Radio indicate staff at the day and sobering centre made 558 calls to police between January 1 and November 14, 2020.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said while municipal enforcement officers do not have the same powers as police, they have increased their presence in the downtown area.
“They are people who are in the downtown quite a bit,” she said. “They’ve been really enhancing their presence in downtown, working to be part of the fabric of that community so that they’re there as a resource.”
A spokesperson for the health and social services authority said since the establishment of the good neighbour agreement, street lighting and cameras have been installed outside the day and sobering centre. A shed was removed to improve visibility.
Due to the pandemic, the spokesperson said, street patrols were temporarily suspended and coverage has been reduced to focus on the area immediately around the centre.
In August, city councillors initially rejected the territorial government’s request to use a city-owned building to house a second, temporary day shelter during the pandemic. In large part, that rejection stemmed from fear that issues outside the permanent facility would repeat themselves outside the proposed temporary shelter.
In November, the territory nevertheless exercised pandemic-related emergency powers to open a temporary shelter at the Mine Rescue Building as the temperature dropped.
Bassi-Kellett said since the temporary shelter opened, the city hasn’t heard any complaints.
The territorial government plans to build a new permanent shelter by 2023.