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Coronavirus
Housing
Yellowknife

Could Yellowknife’s shelter outbreak have been avoided?

Last modified: September 11, 2021 at 8:54am


A Covid-19 outbreak among people who use Yellowknife’s shelters is also affecting those facilities’ support staff. A former worker says more should have been done sooner, but residents hold some responsibility too. 

The territory’s chief public health officer declared a Covid-19 outbreak among the “underhoused and vulnerable population” in Yellowknife on Tuesday night. Since mid-August, Dr Kami Kandola said that day, 19 people who accessed shelters and 10 healthcare and support workers had tested positive for Covid-19.

Dr Kandola on Wednesday said she expected that was “the tip of the iceberg.”

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By Thursday evening, so many staff had been exposed to Covid-19 that Yellowknife’s downtown day shelter was forced to close indefinitely. The city’s overnight sobering centre, operating from the same building, remains open.

For one former shelter worker, who asked not to be named, Thursday evening’s announcement was their “worst fear come true” – and did not need to happen.

“The sad part for me is, and the kind of sad irony is, the GNWT was prepared for exactly this scenario,” they said. 

“They were actually already making the right moves but they closed all that down.”

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The former shelter worker pointed to a temporary day shelter that closed in early June and a dedicated isolation centre for people experiencing homelessness that closed in April. At the time, the territory’s health authority said a transition to hotel-based isolation was a better use of resources. 

When the territorial government quickly began using the Quality Inn to isolate shelter users after Covid-19 exposure at the Salvation Army men’s shelter in mid-August, some people raised concerns about the hotel’s adequacy. The former shelter worker said that plan was “slapped together last-minute” in a way that thrust staff lacking experience with the homeless population into new roles at a brand-new isolation centre.

“It shows me that leadership doesn’t understand what happens in shelters,” they said. “Probably a lot of people just think of shelters as places where people sleep, or a place to go that’s not outside, but they’re so much more than that.

“I’m very concerned for people.” 

The former shelter worker said while there has been collaboration among different government departments on the issue, based on their experience, that often doesn’t trickle down to front-line staff who have valuable insight and experience. They believe there’s room for greater collaboration and consultation. 

In an email to Cabin Radio, territorial government spokesperson Ali Kincaid acknowledged the importance of using a “trauma-informed and compassionate approach” at the isolation centre, due to the historical trauma many people experiencing homelessness have faced.

Health officials have said supports in place at the Quality Inn isolation centre include on-site addictions management, Covid-19 testing, wellness kits, craft supplies, and calling cards. 

‘Are we not ashamed of ourselves?’

The former shelter worker said a Covid-19 outbreak among Yellowknife residents without homes could have been “drastically mitigated” if the territorial government had been more proactive in addressing gaps in services. 

“Hats off to them for their rapid response, but it wasn’t an appropriate response,” they said. 

But the government isn’t solely responsible, the worker added. They noted public resistance to shelters in the city, including the former temporary day shelter at the Mine Rescue Building, services outside Aspen Apartments, and the proposed location for a new permanent day shelter and sobering centre

“As Yellowknifers, are we not ashamed of ourselves?” they questioned. 

“Ultimately, these are the consequences as a community when we say ‘not in my backyard,’ or when we say ‘no, we don’t want that there.’” 

William Greenland, a traditional counsellor at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation – which runs an urban healing camp in Yellowknife – said an outbreak among the city’s homeless population was “bound to happen,” but agreed more could have been done.

“They share a lot of stuff together and they’re always in close quarters,” he said of those affected. “I wish somebody would have stepped up and tried to help somehow, but it’s just really sad to hear the news when it came out.” 

Greenland pointed to the early months of the pandemic, when the downtown day shelter and sobering centre was converted into an isolation centre for 30 people during the month of April 2020. While that was beneficial for those who were in isolation, he said, without additional shelter space, it left some people with nowhere to go. 

“They feel as though they’re left out, totally left out, totally forgotten,” he said of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

There have been occasions, Greenland said, where he has had to ask people to leave the on-the-land wellness camp at night because it’s not safe for them to stay there without staff.

“I didn’t sleep good that night,” he said. “They walked off into the night, into the dark, and I don’t know where they went and where they slept.”

Greenland said he hopes to see better consultation with the community as plans for future shelters evolve, along with more of a focus on asking shelter users what they need. 

“We need, somehow, to get everybody supporting something like this rather than looking at our most vulnerable people on the street and thinking they’re bad people,” he said. 

“We need everybody’s input to make something happen for these people where they’re safe, and we’re safe, and everybody’s comfortable.”

The territorial government has been searching for another location for a temporary warming shelter in Yellowknife this winter. On Wednesday, health minister Julie Green said the territory hopes to “bring another shelter online” within the next six weeks. 

After this article was first published, Green – responding on Twitter – wrote: “I think there are other reasons the outbreak in the homeless population was likely. One is the vaccination rate. Given size of outbreak and number of hospitalizations, I’d say it’s lower than the general population, although vaccination rates aren’t tracked by housing type.

“The other reason is that homeless people with addictions often share intoxicants – bottles, joints – so risk of transmission is higher.”

As of Friday night, there were 97 active cases of Covid-19 across Yellowknife. On Thursday morning, health officials reintroduced gathering restrictions in Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, and Dettah, and have said all indoor public locations in the city should be considered potential exposure sites due to ongoing community transmission.

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