Emily Esau and Robert Essery sit outside the temporary day shelter at the Mine Rescue Building on Monday. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
People using a temporary day shelter in Yellowknife said they were given little notice that the NWT would be closing down the shelter on Monday.
The shelter at the downtown Mine Rescue Building opened in the fall to provide extra space given pandemic-related capacity restrictions at the existing, permanent shelter on 50 Street. On Monday, it ceased operations.
Emily Esau, an advocate for people who are homeless in Yellowknife, learned on Friday that the shelter would be closing three days later. Others had even less time to prepare.
“I don’t know why it took them so long for us to be notified. We didn’t even get a week’s notice,” said Esau.
“I think we should have more communication between the people who make the decisions and us – who it impacts. I talk to the people in the street. I live in a tent.”
Adolf Hakuluk, a shelter user, said he only learned of the closure on Saturday.
“I’m homeless, and I’m booted out of here,” he said. “Me – I’m not worried about it. But other people are going to have a hard time.”
A petition protesting the closure posted on the shelter wall had accumulated more than 30 signatures by Monday morning. Some inscribed their frustration.
“We are lost,” reads one entry.
“Nowhere to go,” reads another.
The NWT’s health authority first indicated the shelter would close in a public notice that the territory said was posted to its website on May 26, but which carried no date stamp and was not distributed to newsrooms until May 28.
The notice said announcements about meal distribution and supports would follow “in the coming days,” but did not provide a specific timeline.
A spokesperson for the NWT government said in an email to Cabin Radio the territory has no plans to set up a shelter at an alternative location. The spokesperson said the health authority will provide temporary access to essential services like meals and showers at the Aspen Apartments building.
The Aspen building was previously used as a Covid-19 centre where people experiencing homelessness could isolate while awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test or after testing positive.
The NWT government established the Mine Rescue Building as a temporary day shelter in November last year by declaring a local state of emergency in Yellowknife, an emergency pandemic power, in order to commandeer its use.
City councillors had previously rejected that use of the building over concerns expressed by local businesses, like the neighbouring Overlander Sports, though the city ultimately supported the GNWT’s acquisition of the building once it became clear no alternative was readily available.
Shelter users described the challenges they’ll face after the shelter closes.
“I bet you at the drop-in, they’re going to have one hell of a hard time with those people. They’re only allowed so much capacity,” said Hakuluk, who has used Yellowknife shelters for about a decade.
“Where else are they going to go?”
Robert Essery has been using the temporary day shelter since December. He’s been in a wheelchair and unable to work since he broke a vertebra in his back.
“You know how many people are on the street? One hundred and eighty people homeless,” he said. “Look at us. Now we’ve got nothing.”
Essery applied to Yellowknife Housing First, a program that helps people who are chronically homeless to transition into private market housing. The program currently has funding for up to 20 people. Essery was added to a waiting list more than a year long, he said. He’s been living at the Salvation Army since.
“You know what I do for a living? I panhandle,” he said. “I’ve never been so discriminated in my life.”
Esau spends some nights at her room at the Yellowknife Women’s Centre and others in her tent. She said she has struggled with alcoholism and depression since she was a teenager. She worries the temporary shelter’s closure will worsen those struggles.
“I just kind-of feel lost,” she said. “I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know who to ask for help.”
‘Get the lease again’
Esau sits on Yellowknife’s Community Advisory Board on Homelessness. She meets with other committee members by video but, without regular access to a computer, her ability to participate is limited.
“If I knew about this earlier, I would have talked to them about it and brought it up to see if there’s anything they could do,” she said.
“They have the contacts, they have the information, they know the resources. If I had a heads-up, I’d be able to bring it up to them, but my next meeting isn’t until another two weeks or so. This is definitely going to be one of the topics I’m going to bring up with the committee.”
The GNWT was unable to secure a permit from the City of Yellowknife to operate the space as a temporary shelter after the emergency declaration that grants use of the building expires.
Esau said she would’ve liked to see a contingency plan.
“They should have had some setup for when they knew they were going to close it, so we could actually have somewhere to go during the day,” she said.
Hakuluk offered a simple solution.
“Get the lease again for these guys,” he said. “They’ll walk around the streets or go to other stores, then get kicked out.”
The territorial government listed a permanent vulnerable persons’ shelter as one of five community health projects in its most recent budget. It has since identified a vacant lot near the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre on 51 Street as its preferred location for a permanent, dual-purpose day and sobering centre to be completed by 2023.
In the meantime, the city’s single remaining day shelter will likely turn people like Essery away to follow Covid-19 capacity restrictions, he fears.