The NWT government’s latest attempt to find a site for a temporary day shelter in downtown Yellowknife is already facing opposition, even as a minister implores residents to support the project.
On Monday, health minister Julie Green said her government plans to convert the former Legion building – on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street – into a day shelter this winter. In an open letter, she asked residents not to impede the planned facility by appealing against it, which could set back its opening by months.
“There are no other options left to explore,” Green wrote. The territory has spent months trying to find a replacement location for a temporary shelter previously housed in another downtown property, the Mine Rescue Building.
Despite Green’s plea, some nearby business owners and tenants said Monday’s announcement was the first they had heard of the territory’s plan. They contacted Cabin Radio to express concern about having a shelter next door.
“It was done quite rapidly, without any consultation of what the social and economic impact of it would do to any of the business owners in the vicinity of that structure,” said Mathieu Picard, who co-owns protein shake bar Good Vibes YK.
“It’s very disrespectful to everybody in the surrounding of that facility.”
Picard said the business he and his wife opened in April is struggling with pandemic restrictions. He worries that will be compounded by having a shelter as a neighbour. Picard said he doesn’t believe putting a shelter near health-focused businesses like a protein shake bar or gym is appropriate.
“It’s going to create an unsafe environment for the clientele trying to access this building,” he said.
Picard said people have been using the back alley of the building to consume drugs and alcohol and to relieve themselves. He expects those problems to worsen with a shelter nearby, pointing to what he described as a lack of accountability and oversight at other such facilities in the city.
“I have to call the RCMP almost every two days to wake up someone that’s passed out in the back of my stairs, someone that I’ve got to make sure is still alive. I have to call the landlord to do pressure washing and decontamination because there was excrement everywhere,” he said.
Shortly after speaking with Cabin Radio, Picard announced on Facebook that Good Vibes will be closing. (After this article was first published, Picard clarified that the business was closing temporarily owing to lack of custom and would reopen, though potentially not in its existing shake bar form.)
‘It needs to happen’
Norma Nelson, who owns BreakAway Fitness on the same street, said the territorial government could not “just randomly pick a building and say, OK, we’ll put it right here.”
“This has to be studied and people have to come together and discuss,” said Nelson.
“The bottom line is we’re suffering right now. Our businesses are suffering and it’s just going to cause more suffering for us.”
Jay Bran, a criminal defence lawyer whose practice is in the same building, worries clients won’t want to come to his office with a shelter next door.
“I need to have people feel comfortable to come into my office when they need to meet with me. I need to be comfortable bringing clients into my office,” he said.
“This may not be the most comfortable situation, especially if some of the people involved in my files are standing right outside my office.”
There are people who support having a day shelter close by.
Emma Junker’s workplace faces the former Legion building.
“It really needs to go somewhere. No ands, ifs, or buts, it needs to happen – and this location is already close to where our vulnerable population already hang out during the day,” Junker said.
“These people need a warm, safe place to go during the day. Why not in my back yard?”
Junker said having a shelter as a neighbour may address the issues businesses are reporting in their back alleys, as people experiencing homelessness will have nearby facilities.
“I feel many of these concerns that other people have stem from the fact that homeless folks and those struggling with addiction make people uncomfortable for really no reason than they are othered,” she said.
“It’s difficult to look into yourself and ask, ‘Why does this make me uncomfortable?’ and then accept your bias and realize that a lot of it is on you personally, not our vulnerable population.”
Building is ‘the right choice’
There are three separate shelter initiatives unfolding in Yellowknife.
An emergency shelter is being proposed this week, potentially in the city’s arena, to address the immediate gap in services caused by the 50 Street shelter closing due to lack of staff.
The temporary shelter proposed for the former Legion building is a longer-term project: it was already being planned for the winter, prior to the latest outbreak, as Covid-19 capacity restrictions mean demand for shelter space outstrips availability on 50 Street.
Lastly, a new, permanent shelter to replace the 50 Street facility is being proposed for land next to the downtown Tree of Peace building. If that goes ahead, it’s now not expected to open until 2024.
If it opens as planned, the temporary facility in the former Legion building would give people experiencing homelessness a place to get warm, shower, use the washroom, and eat during the winter.
According to Green, the territorial government looked at more than a dozen locations before selecting the former Legion building. She said it’s the “right choice” as it can accommodate 60 people, requires minimal renovation, and is within walking distance of other shelters and health services.
The NWT government said it plans to begin consulting neighbours this week. Green acknowledged there is “likely to be resistance” to the proposed location, but urged residents not to oppose the facility, saying it needs to open by the end of October. Any appeal of the location could derail a shelter opening for months.
Picard said that situation would be of the territorial government’s own making as it did not act sooner. He questioned if Green would oppose having a shelter as her neighbour.
“It’s easy for her to say, ‘Please don’t oppose my proposed location,’ when it’s not going to impact her office, it’s not going to impact her livelihood,” he said.
“That demographic deserves dignity, that demographic deserves proper care, proper services. It deserves a proper facility that’s located in a way that it’s healing and peaceful for them as much as it’s respectful of the whole society as well.”
Concerns can be managed, MLA says
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said he hopes the territorial government will develop a good-neighbour agreement with nearby tenants before applying to the city for a permit to use the old Legion building. The territory has a similar agreement in place for the 50 Street day shelter and sobering centre.
“I understand the concerns of businesses nearby,” Johnson said of the proposal. “I don’t think they’re completely unwarranted, but I think those concerns can be managed.”
Johnson pointed to other shelters in the city, like the Salvation Army and Spruce Bough, that he said have “worked tirelessly” to develop a relationship with neighbours and manage concerns when they arise. The more shelters open, he said, the easier it will be to provide security and proper services to people experiencing homelessness.
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby suggested another location for a temporary day shelter could be the vacant lot near the legislature where the city’s visitor centre was formerly located. She said that site is farther from businesses and closer to the Legislative Assembly, where ministers and MLAs would see it daily.
Nokleby criticized the territorial government for being reactive rather than proactive, in her view, in addressing gaps in services for people experiencing homelessness. She said a facility that houses a variety of supports for vulnerable people in one building is missing, while the lack of detox services in the territory remains an issue.
“I think my prediction in February was true. Our pandemic is only accelerating our situation and making it worse. I’ll be curious to see what the health minister has to say in response to that,” Nokleby said, referencing a heated exchange in the legislature with Green over whether the territory was in a mental health crisis.
Asked by Cabin Radio on Sunday whether the NWT is now facing a mental health crisis, Green avoided a direct answer.
“The importance of the question is not about rhetoric,” the minister wrote on Facebook. “It’s about whether we have supports in place for people who need them. And we do.”
Nokleby said one of her priorities during the upcoming sitting of the Legislative Assembly will be to raise the issue of mental health and supports for vulnerable people.
Discussion of the temporary day shelter’s proposed location mirrors the conversation this time last year. As the territorial government then frantically searched for a location ahead of winter, residents opposed a variety of options, saying they worried problems at the 50 Street shelter would move to their neighbourhood.
In early November, the territorial government declared a state of emergency in order to override the permitting process and immediately begin using the city’s Mine Rescue Building.
On Monday, Green said the territorial government does not want to repeat those “necessary, but admittedly heavy-handed measures.”