The Northwest Territories government says it has found a location for a temporary day shelter in downtown Yellowknife this winter and implored residents not to impede its opening.
In an open letter to residents, health minister Julie Green said the former Legion building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street, most recently used by Aurora Village, was the “right choice” for a temporary shelter.
If it opens as planned, the shelter will give people experiencing homelessness somewhere to get warm, shower, use the washroom, and eat a meal throughout the winter.
“As challenging as the pandemic has been, imagine what it would be like to also try to weather each day without a roof over your head in the frigid cold,” Green wrote. Without another day shelter opening, she said, that will be the reality for more than 300 vulnerable people.
According to Green, the Aurora Village location was selected as it can accommodate around 60 people, requires minimal renovation, and is within walking distance of other shelters – which close between 7am and 7pm – and health services.
“If they can’t get to the day shelter by foot, they’ll be forced into stairwells, lobbies, restaurants or other places to find respite from the cold,” Green wrote of people who use shelters in the city.
The minister said since the territory asked landlords to come forward with potential sites for a temporary day shelter last month, staff examined dozens of locations before selecting the Aurora Village building.
“There are no other options left to explore,” she wrote.
An additional day shelter is needed as capacity at the permanent day shelter and sobering centre, on 50 Street, is reduced during the pandemic, meaning dozens of vulnerable people are turned away every day.
Currently, the 50 Street facility is closed as so many staff have been exposed to Covid-19 that there aren’t enough people to keep it open. The territorial government has asked employees to volunteer for redeployment to address what it calls a “critical service gap.”
Green said the territory plans to open a new temporary shelter before the end of October, once it has the necessary city-issued permits.
However, residents can launch an appeal if they oppose the location of the new shelter. Similar appeals have derailed past territorial bids to open shelters or related services for Yellowknife’s homeless population.
The territory says it will now consult neighbours of the Aurora Village building about its plans. Green said there is “likely to be resistance” to the proposed location but urged residents not to oppose the facility, calling it “a truly kind and meaningful act of reconciliation.”
“Almost everyone in need of this shelter has either attended residential schools or been impacted by inter-generational trauma from them,” she wrote. “You may not feel personally responsible when you see the unmarked graves of children who died separated from their families and cultures at residential schools but, collectively, we have a responsibility to lighten the burdens of those who survived and their families.”
Last winter, when the clock was ticking for the territorial government to find space for a temporary day shelter, there were concerns that an appeal launched by residents could delay a shelter opening, leaving vulnerable people outside during the frigid winter months.
At the eleventh hour, in early November, the NWT government declared a local state of emergency to override the permitting process and immediately begin using the city’s Mine Rescue Building.
In Monday’s letter, Green said the territorial government does not want to repeat the “necessary, but admittedly heavy-handed measures” it took a year ago.
When that temporary day shelter closed in June, the territory had hoped to use a parking lot outside the city’s Aspen Apartments to offer some shelter services. But when a resident submitted an appeal, the territory rescinded its application.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty previously told Cabin Radio anyone wanting a development permit from the city should ideally apply eight to nine months in advance, to allow for the public engagement and appeals process.
Under territorial legislation, once a municipal permit is issued, residents have 14 days to file an appeal. If an appeal is accepted, a hearing has to be held within 30 days, then the appeal board has an additional 60 days to decide whether to approve, cancel, or modify the permit.
Anyone with questions or feedback about the territory’s latest plan for a temporary day shelter is asked to contact the Department of Health and Social Services.