As temporary shelter services in Yellowknife have been put on hold, some residents say the gap in support for people experiencing homelessness is “unacceptable.”
Last week, the NWT government announced that limited services outside Aspen Apartments would continue to be suspended while the city-issued permit to use the site is appealed.
Keegan Payne, who lives across the street from the apartment complex, said he was upset when he learned that people in need would no longer be able to use the space to get food and spend time protected from the elements.
“It seemed like it was just a place for them to hang out in the shade and be comfortable and not be getting kicked out of downtown areas or looked at funny,” he said.
“I think it was a good program. It made sense,” he continued. “And then all of a sudden … I got up and they weren’t there. Nobody was there.”
Portable washrooms, canopies, and seating had been set up in the parking lot outside the apartment building in an effort to replace the temporary day shelter that closed with little notice on June 1. Those services were abruptly halted the following week, however, as the territory said it learned it didn’t yet have the necessary permit.
Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said the closure has had “ripple effects” on the city’s homeless community.
“I think that there has been increased anxiety, I think increased tension. And so not providing shelter services causes harm,” she said.
While the appeal of the Aspen Apartments permit has not yet been made public, one informal complaint about the shelter was shared with Cabin Radio. That resident stated concerns about the impact it could have on neighbouring residences where families with children live.
“I realize homelessness is a problem, however, not all homeless individuals are harmless,” they wrote in an email to the city.
‘Something needs to be done’
Payne said while he understands people’s safety concerns, he never experienced, witnessed, or heard of any harassment or other negative incidents associated with the services at Aspen Apartments.
“Not all humans are harmless. That doesn’t justify interrupting or delaying this potential solution. And this is not even a full solution,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I think something needs to be done and to just constantly kick the stone down the road or interrupt these processes with appeals and interruptions and stuff just doesn’t really make any sense to me.”
As an average citizen, Payne said, it’s unclear what the barriers to providing these services are, as the focus has been on bureaucratic processes that largely take place behind closed doors.
The temporary day shelter at the city’s Mine Rescue Building was only able to open in November after the NWT government declared a local state of emergency in Yellowknife. Additional shelter space was needed during the winter as capacity at the permanent day shelter and sobering centre is reduced under pandemic restrictions.
The city had initially rejected the territorial government’s request to use the space citing worries the territory hadn’t adequately planned safety and security measures to address concerns from neighbouring businesses. NWT health officials said while they explored more than 40 different options – including the city’s offer to fund a temporary structure on city property – by the time temperatures dropped, they hadn’t found an adequate alternative and worried how long an appeal could take.
Under the territory’s Community Planning and Development Act, residents have 14 days to file an appeal of a municipal development permit. The development appeal board then has 30 days to hold a hearing, and an additional 60 days to issue a written decision.
The appeal hearing for the Aspen Apartments permit has been scheduled for July 14 at 6pm in the city council chamber. The hearing will also be broadcast live via webcast on the city’s website.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty previously told Cabin Radio she hopes the city can work with the territory to fast track essential development projects in the future. The NWT Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which oversees that legislation, did not respond to Cabin Radio’s request for comment.
More accountability, less finger pointing
Payne said growing up in Yellowknife, he heard a lot of misconceptions and a lack of sympathy for the city’s homeless population. Now he said there’s a growing awareness about the impacts of colonization and residential school and a community of people who support the city’s street-involved population.
When Yellowknife councillors turned down the territory’s proposal to use the Mine Rescue Building in August 2020, more than 100 people signed an open letter calling for the city and territorial governments to work together on a solution.
“I think the biggest frustration right now is the empty words and efforts that is coming from the bureaucracy and the government and the city. But the actions are just not reflecting what commitments these leaders and people in power are making,” Payne said.
Rao echoed those sentiments.
“I think we’ve seen some finger pointing from different levels of government about how we got to this outcome,” she said. “What we really need is a solution, and less finger pointing and more accountability. I would love to see our political leaders be champions and advocates for people who are experiencing homelessness.”
NWT health minister Julie Green previously told Cabin Radio the territory recognizes people experiencing homelessness “need to be treated with dignity and respect by having their basic needs met.” She said the city and territorial governments are working to “get on the same page” and find a location for a temporary shelter if one is needed when temperatures drop again.
Cabin Radio reached out to all four of Yellowknife’s regular MLAs on the issue, none responded to a request for comment.
‘We cannot go backwards’
Rao noted that while the territorial government has said it is “looking forward” to the relaxation of pandemic restrictions that will allow capacity to increase at the permanent day shelter, capacity was already an issue prior to the pandemic.
“There were never enough spaces in our shelters. Our shelters have been overflowing day and night time,” she said. “We saw that it could make a big difference in our community to provide more services and we cannot go backwards.”
According to Yellowknife’s latest point-in-time homeless count, 338 people were reported as experiencing homelessness in 2018, 90 percent of whom were Indigenous. A more recent point-in-time homeless count has yet to be released.
An average of 65 people were using the temporary day shelter at the Mine Rescue Building everyday before it closed. The territorial government said it does not keep track of how many people are turned away from shelters although some shelters do individually track that information.
Rao said the NWT government has taken positive steps to support people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, but worries those supports could end with the pandemic.
“I am not comfortable with policy making that does a good thing, and then takes that good thing away. That is not fair to people whose human rights are affected by the provision of shelter services.”
Beyond additional day shelter space, the territory’s health department is among those who helped to fund Spruce Bough. Operated by the Yellowknife Women’s Society in the former Arnica Inn, the space initially opened in March as an isolation centre for people experiencing homelessness before expanding services to include a managed alcohol program and wraparound supports.
Currently, Spruce Bough is only funded until the end of September and the territory’s health minister says future funding from her department is dependent on the pandemic. Rao said the women’s society is working with the territorial government to find funding for the project after September 30.
The NWT government has committed to build a permanent day shelter and sobering centre in Yellowknife’s downtown by 2023.