Three years before construction of a new day shelter and sobering centre is due to begin in Yellowknife, some downtown businesses are already taking issue with its proposed location.
The territorial government is standing behind its decision to pursue the location, on 51 Street, while shelter advocates say a bigger conversation needs to be had.
In May, the NWT government recommended a new shelter be built on a vacant lot between the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre and St John Ambulance building. On July 9, it issued a request for designs for a wellness and recovery centre on the site with an estimated $6-million construction budget. Bidding is open until August 10.
Nearby business owners and tenants say they found out about the project through news reports and were never informed or consulted about the location by the NWT government. Some are concerned about the impact having a shelter as a neighbour could have on staff and customers.
“If they build it there, I’m closing my business,” said Klaus Schoenne, who has owned True Value Hardware – on the corner of 51 Street and 51 Avenue, opposite the proposed site – for decades.
“Customers aren’t going to want to come and my staff, I’m not going to put them through that security.”
Schoenne pointed to reports of violence outside the current day and sobering centre on 50 Street, including an attack in September 2019 that resulted in the death of one man and another being sentenced to five and a half years in prison for manslaughter.
Neighbours of the existing centre have raised concerns about garbage, crowding outside the doors of businesses, and urination and defecation. The territorial government is investigating allegations first published by Cabin Radio of mismanagement and safety breaches at the facility.
The new wellness and recovery centre will be more than twice the size of the current day and sobering centre. The request for proposals states the facility will be a “more permanent home” for programs, along with expanded and better-integrated services. A 2019 evaluation of the current shelter recommended an integrated service model and the need for more services like addictions and family counsellors and harm-reduction programming.
‘Nobody really wants it in their back yard’
Schoenne said he does not dispute the need for a centre serving people experiencing homelessness and addictions in Yellowknife, but doesn’t believe the current location is the right fit. He said it goes against plans to revitalize the city’s downtown and noted the lot is behind the Raven Pub and Gold Range bar.
“How are the clients going to sleep when the Raven Pub is pounding music at 11 o’clock at night?” he questioned.
Toni Enns, general manager of the pub, told Cabin Radio in a message that putting a sobering centre in “any lot downtown is a ridiculous idea.”
“There will be no benefit whatsoever to the surrounding businesses once again,” Enns wrote. “It’s for the best interest of the patients to the sobering centre to not be located in the downtown area.”
A representative of Crowe MacKay, an accounting firm near True Value Hardware, said the business also has concerns about the shelter location but declined an interview on the subject.
The Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, the Gold Range, and Range Lake Developments – which owns buildings in the area, including Cabin Radio’s premises – did not return Cabin Radio’s requests for comment.
Schoenne has started a petition against building the shelter on 51 Street. He indicated any development permits granted for the site will likely be appealed.
“The concept of what I see is going to be built across from me is not something I want to be a part of,” he said.
“There’s got to be something wrong with the way the government is providing the service if nobody really wants it in their back yard.”
‘We’re going to support it wherever it’s going to be’
There are Yellowknife businesses and residents that support having shelter services downtown.
Eric Binion owns Barren Ground Coffee, located near the corner of 52 Street and 51 Avenue, not far from the new shelter’s proposed location. While he understands Schoenne’s perspective, he said, he supports a new shelter downtown and feels it’s a “much-needed resource.”
“I’m definitely not going to take the nimby perspective and be like, ‘it’s not going to work,’ because it has to be downtown, I assume, for the target audience,” Binion said, referencing the acronym for “not in my back yard.”
“It’s got to go somewhere and it’s not going to be making some people happy but I think that’s just how it is,” he continued.
“As of right now, we’re going to support it wherever it’s going to be downtown. If it’s across the street from us, so be it. If it’s just around the corner, the same.”
Binion doesn’t believe a nearby shelter will negatively impact his business, adding it will hopefully help to combat intoxication and homelessness downtown.
“I’m pretty idealistic that … they’ll be able to create something that will be better, provide more services, and hopefully it won’t have kind-of the same issues that it has now if they’re able to have better capacity,” he said.
In September 2020, after the city rejected the territory’s proposal to use the Mine Rescue Building as a temporary day shelter, more than 100 people signed an open letter calling on the governments to work together to find a suitable location downtown.
The Facebook group that formed around that issue, Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, now has more than 460 members who continue to advocate for services for the city’s homeless population.
Representatives of the NWT Department of Health and Social Services have repeatedly said shelters need to be located in the downtown core, near other services. Jason Brinson, executive director of the Salvation Army in Yellowknife, previously said shelter users have themselves highlighted the importance of being downtown.
In a 2019 evaluation of the current day shelter and sobering centre, program staff and partner agencies said they worried people would not use the centre if it wasn’t downtown – but the report also stated 57 percent of centre users who were surveyed said they would go to a facility outside the area.
The 34 percent of respondents who said they wouldn’t use a shelter outside the downtown mostly cited a lack of transportation as the reason.
GNWT ‘searched diligently’ for the right fit
Jeremy Bird, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, said in an email that the territory “searched diligently for a permanent location before settling on the proposed site” for the wellness and recovery centre.
He said the NWT government is “open to considering other locations if necessary.”
Bird said Indigenous groups, the territory’s health and social services authority, the City of Yellowknife, and the NWT Housing Corporation were among those consulted about the project, adding “engagements have been very positive and supportive to date.”
Shelter users have been involved in discussions about the project twice, said Bird, while neighbours and members of the public will be consulted through the city’s development permit process. The territorial government has not yet applied for a development permit for the site.
Under territorial legislation, residents have two weeks to file an appeal of a municipal development permit. If an appeal is granted, the development appeal board has to hold a hearing within 30 days then has an additional 60 days to make a decision.
The city declined an interview with Cabin Radio.
This is far from the first time residents have debated whether services for people experiencing homelessness and addictions should be located in downtown Yellowknife.
After the combined day and sobering centre was established, some residents – including city councillors – criticized its proximity to the downtown liquor store.
When the territorial government attempted to establish a temporary day shelter last winter at the city-owned Mine Rescue Building to compensate for reduced capacity at the permanent shelter during the pandemic, the move met opposition from councillors and business owners.
Health and social services staff said they looked at more than 40 different locations between August and November 2020, but members of the public repeatedly raised concerns about proximity to businesses, bars, and schools. The territory worried an appeal filed by any resident could derail the opening of a facility for months, eventually declaring a local state of emergency to commandeer the Mine Rescue Building using a process that could not be appealed.
After that emergency ended and the shelter vacated the building, the NWT government had hoped to use space outside Aspen Apartments to host services during the summer. The city-issued development permit to use the site was appealed and the government withdrew its application due to the length of the appeal process.
Several advocates have criticized the gap in support for people experiencing homelessness, saying it has caused “ripple effects” in the community.
In response, health minister Julie Green said she was “looking forward” to the easing of pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings so capacity at shelters could increase, and pointed to the wellness and recovery centre as a long-term solution.
While those restrictions were eased last month, however, strict caps remain at shelters. The NWT government has also pushed back construction of the new shelter, originally projected to begin in 2023, to the spring of 2024, citing the pandemic’s stress on territorial resources.
‘There are people’s lives on the other side’
A former shelter worker speaking to Cabin Radio on condition of anonymity said the debate about where to put the shelter doesn’t factor in underlying issues, the benefits of shelters, and the voices of shelter users.
The former worker said while there have been large turnouts at demonstrations in Yellowknife mourning the ongoing discoveries of Indigenous children buried at former residential school sites, issues of systemic racism and intergenerational trauma haven’t been part of the conversation about shelters in the city.
“This is where some of those battles are had and those are some of the solutions that need to be in place,” they said. “These are kind-of the sad and difficult realities that I think we need to face and come to as a city, and I do believe we can.”
The former shelter worker said wherever the new shelter is built, the whole community needs to be involved and businesses can have a meaningful relationship with the shelter and shelter users.
“I think a lot of the business owners … they don’t know them. They don’t know their name, they don’t know their stories, they don’t have a friendship there,” they said. “I think a lot changes when you sit down and share a coffee and share a meal and conversation with people.
“I do wonder what would change for the better if that were to happen.”
The former worker said shelter users do make positive contributions to the city, like clearing snow in the winter and working on flower and Christmas displays. They added people experiencing homelessness in city have a close-knit community and are also residents of Yellowknife, whose voices and concerns deserve to be heard.
“They read the news too, and they see the petitions going around too, and it’s tough,” they said. “We talk about this petition right now, but there are people’s lives on the other side that are impacted by that. I don’t know that we fully realize that and what that must feel like.
“I can’t imagine someone petitioning my neighbourhood to have me move out.”