As Yellowknife eases into spring and summer, one city councillor is questioning what will now happen to the city’s Mine Rescue Building, which was converted into a temporary shelter for the winter.
On November 6, the NWT government took the extraordinary step of declaring a local state of emergency in Yellowknife in order to use the city-owned downtown building as a day shelter.
Officials said the emergency was necessary as they had run out of time and alternatives before the cold set in. People experiencing homelessness needed an extra place to keep warm during the day as pandemic restrictions had reduced capacity at the permanent day shelter on 50 Street.
The territorial government has since renewed that state of emergency every two weeks to keep using the building, and said it would continue to do so “for as long as required.”
At a city council meeting last Monday, Councillor Niels Konge – who had vocally opposed using the building to house a shelter – questioned when the state of emergency will end and what will happen to the Mine Rescue Building when it does.
A spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs told Cabin Radio no date has been determined for the end of the local emergency. The spokesperson said it’s “currently under consideration.”
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said municipal staff have been working closely with the territorial Department of Health and Social Services. She said the department indicated it planned to use the building until the end of May and is looking at other locations to use afterward.
“That building isn’t off the table yet in terms of their interest, but they are looking at alternatives because they do recognize the importance of having outdoor space for the clientele that are using the temporary day shelter,” Bassi-Kellett said.
According to Bassi-Kellett, the NWT government has identified two possible alternative locations.
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the territorial health and social services authority – which operates the temporary day shelter – confirmed the plan to vacate the Mine Rescue Building “in favour of a more suitable location for summer operations.”
Maguire said the authority would not share more details, however, as planning was ongoing.
“While the Covid-19 pandemic continues, we know that we need safe space for some of Yellowknife’s most vulnerable residents,” Maguire wrote, adding that an average of 65 people access the temporary shelter each day.
“Due to pandemic restrictions that are in place to reduce spread and keep residents safe, we will continue to need some form of expansion space and will continue to ensure services are accessible to our community members who need support.”
‘Very keen’ new tenants
If and when the department does vacate the Mine Rescue Building, Bassi-Kellett said there are other tenants who are “very keen to get in there.”
“We would like to follow up with them because they hadn’t found anything suitable that could serve their purposes over the winter,” she said.
When the territory commandeered the city’s building, the YWCA and SideDoor charities were left without a space to house youth and family programming.
For the past two decades, the building has housed SideDoor’s youth resource centre, which last year won a bid to continue leasing the space alongside the YWCA. In January, having been kept from the Mine Rescue Building by the territory’s emergency declaration, SideDoor and the YWCA found a temporary home for their programs in a downtown building above the post office.
When the territory initially approached the city about using the Mine Rescue Building as a shelter in August, its request was rejected by councillors. Several nearby businesses, including Overlander Sports and the Black Knight Pub, expressed concern about the impact a shelter could have on staff and customers.
Maguire told Cabin Radio that since the temporary shelter opened, two neighbouring businesses have raised concerns about loitering, shouting, and the behaviour of shelter users in the vicinity of their properties. There have been 59 calls to RCMP, an average of eight calls per month.
Maguire said mitigation measures at the temporary shelter include patrols around the premises and neighbouring properties, additional lighting, the installation of a fence, and staff radios to improve communication and responsiveness.
Responding to neighbours’ concerns
At last Monday’s council meeting, Bassi-Kellett said the city had “made it clear” to the territory that the NWT government should have been more proactive in establishing a good-neighbour agreement and a forum to discuss issues at the temporary shelter, as has been established for the permanent day and sobering centre.
“We’ve got to figure out, as a community, how it is that we can have facilities that support vulnerable people, that support people that are perhaps less fortunate in life than some of us. We have to figure that out and we want to work with the Department of Health to do so,” she told councillors.
“We certainly look forward to things improving in the downtown area.”
Maguire said the territorial government chose to focus on direct outreach and “real-time issue resolution” at the temporary shelter as that was the preference of neighbouring businesses, calling it “an effective approach.” He said neighbours have contact information for the shelter manager and an on-site supervisor, and said the authority reached out to neighbours at least twice a month during the winter and almost weekly as the weather warmed.
“Our team has prioritized relationship-building and engagement with the neighbours, and are proactively reaching out on an ongoing basis to ensure neighbours feel supported and have a clear path to bring forward concerns,” he wrote.
Magurie said the authority will determine what method or process for engaging neighbours is best at a future shelter once the location has been determined.
The NWT government has committed to building a new permanent day and sobering centre by 2023. It is proposing a vacant lot on 51 Street as the location.