A replacement service for people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife, set up after a temporary day shelter closed, has been suspended because the NWT government does not yet possess the right city-issued permit.
Since the temporary day shelter at Yellowknife’s Mine Rescue Building closed on June 1, the NWT government has used an area outside Aspen Apartments, on 51 Street, to offer meals, space to store belongings, and a place to socialize, eat, and use portable washrooms.
On Wednesday, those services abruptly stopped.
Health minister Julie Green told Cabin Radio the operation was shut down at the request of the city, as the mandatory waiting period for a temporary use permit – a form of municipal licence to operate – had not ended.
“There was a misunderstanding here between the staff of health and social services and the staff at the city, where our staff thought they could begin operating at the beginning of June 1,” the minister said.
Green said takeout meals are now being provided at the city’s permanent day shelter on 50 street, which is run by the NWT Disabilities Council through a contract with the territory’s health and social services authority.
People can access bathrooms, showers, laundry and other services at the day shelter, but capacity inside is limited due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty explained that while the city approved a temporary use permit for Aspen Apartments on June 1, under territorial legislation, residents have 14 days to review and appeal it. If there are no appeals, the territorial government can resume services on June 16.
If there is an appeal, however, a hearing must be held within 30 days, then the appeal board has an additional 60 days to decide whether to approve, cancel, or modify the permit.
A complaint from one resident to the city was shared with Cabin Radio. In that email, the resident called the territory’s use of the site before the permit was formally approved a “blatant disregard for process and just asking for an appeal.”
The resident expressed concern about Aspen Apartments’ proximity to nearby residential units. “I’m unsure if I’m more angry about the location or GNWT’s belief that they are above rules and process,” they wrote.
The resident did not respond to Cabin Radio’s request for comment.
Until recently, Aspen Apartments was being used as an isolation centre for people experiencing homelessness, although occupancy was “intermittent” according to the territorial government.
‘Musical chairs doesn’t even do it justice’
Advocates for Yellowknife’s street-involved population say they are troubled by the gap in services and question why city and territorial officials have been unable to come up with a solution.
The temporary shelter at the Mine Rescue Building was serving an average of 65 people every day. When it closed, shelter users expressed worry they would have nowhere to go.
Nick Sowsun, founder of the Facebook group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, said staff and users found out the services outside Aspen Apartments were being shut down at 4pm on Tuesday.
Sowsun said that’s “disappointing” as those services were already a reduction on what was offered at the temporary shelter.
“It’s a concern for the people that rely on that service,” he said.
“I’m concerned about where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do, and I’m concerned about how it feels for them to have this constant – I mean, musical chairs doesn’t even do it justice – to be sort-of tossed around like you’re not a priority. It’s unfair, it’s insulting. They’re already people struggling with a variety of things.”
Sowsun said there must be better coordination between different levels of government.
“The planning is all being done at the last minute and then, when something goes wrong, the government and the city point fingers at each other and they blame each other,” he said.
“In my view, they both share some of the blame. But where does it really get us? The whole approach, in my view, needs to change.”
City, GNWT trying to ‘get on the same page’
Green acknowledged the services provided outside Aspen Apartments were not adequate, but said the territory has struggled to find a solution. She noted the NWT government has committed to open a new permanent day shelter in Yellowknife by 2023.
“We have this large homeless population in Yellowknife who need to be treated with dignity and respect by having their basic needs met,” she said. “Aspen is a stopgap measure, it is not the answer to our prayers by any means.”
Green stressed that while the territory is responsible for providing services, the city has control over land use and development within municipal boundaries.
“We can’t operate in a vacuum. We live in this city, we work in this city, and we need to cooperate with them in order to find both temporary and long-term solutions for the homeless population,” she said.
Because of the differing responsibilities between governments, Green said there has been “some tension” between the parties on the matter.
“I don’t think we have the same view of the homeless population,” the minister said.
“We see them as a group who need constant services so that they are able to have basic functions and dignity … I have not heard the city acknowledge that this group of residents is as worthy of these basic services as any other residents.”
Green said, however, that both governments are working together and trying to “get on the same page” to find a solution before winter. She pointed to the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which details the importance of a multi-government approach.
“We’re working together. We don’t have a choice, it’s like a marriage,” she said.
“We are fully aware that what happened last year was very stressful for everyone involved, and that we would like a solution in place by the time people start coming indoors again.”
In November, the territorial government commandeered the city-owned Mine Rescue Building after taking the extraordinary step of declaring a local state of emergency in Yellowknife. City councillors had initially rejected the territory’s request to use the building as a temporary day shelter in August, citing worries that the territory hadn’t adequately planned safety and security measures to address concerns from neighbouring businesses.
Green said her department looked at more than 40 different options before cold weather set in.
The territory renewed the state of emergency every two weeks until earlier this month as temperatures warmed. Green said the city would not renew the territory’s use of the building without the state of emergency.
Mayor Alty, meanwhile, said to stay in the Mine Rescue Building, the NWT government would have needed to apply for a development permit – something it opted against due to the length of the public engagement and appeals process. Ideally, the mayor said, proponents should apply for a development permit eight to nine months in advance.
Alty said the city has tried to find ways to work around stringent legislation like offering the use of city land for a temporary structure or encouraging the territory to look at sites that are already approved for shelter use, like the Salvation Army or the permanent day shelter. But the territorial government has specific requirements for a shelter space, officials said at a recent meeting with city councillors, and a temporary structure would not meet their needs.
Alty hopes the city and territory can work together to change legislation so essential development projects can be fast-tracked.
“The government is the only one that can change their own legislation,” Alty said of the GNWT.
“So they can get frustrated with the city about this process, but they’re the ones holding the power to make any changes to streamline the legislation.”