Seeking urgent approval for a new temporary shelter in Yellowknife, the NWT government pledged to improve the way it works with neighbouring residents and businesses.
Recent plans to open shelters in Yellowknife have met resistance from nearby tenants and businesses. This time, after the NWT’s health minister said a site on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street was the only option left, nearby businesses immediately expressed concern.
But there are an estimated 300 people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife and not enough places for them to go when winter sets in, meaning a solution has to be rapidly identified.
“What we’re doing this time is we’re making a real, concerted effort to really engage with the public and really engage with the neighbours,” said Sara Chorostkowski, director of mental wellness and addictions recovery at the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services.
“What we’re trying to do is really make ourselves available, provide people the opportunity to talk with us and engage with us around what we’re doing, and why we’re doing this, and why this is important.”
The building in question is the former Legion premises, most recently used by Aurora Village. When the NWT government seeks a municipal permit to open a shelter there, a single appeal by any Yellowknife resident or business could delay the shelter’s opening by months or halt it completely.
That’s happened in the recent past. This summer, residents complained when the territorial government tried to offer some services in a parking lot – and the services were shut down. The tentative site of a future, permanent wellness and recovery centre, set to open in 2024, is already opposed.
This time, NWT health minister Julie Green has implored residents to forgo an appeal in an open letter. Chorostkowski said staff have delivered pamphlets to neighbours and the department has created a dedicated email address to handle questions and concerns.
Green told Cabin Radio she wants residents to consider the shelter an act of reconciliation, as many people who will use it are residential school survivors or affected by intergenerational trauma.
“There is a connection between walking down Franklin Avenue on July 1 in an orange shirt to remember children who didn’t make it home from residential school, and those who went to residential school and live on the street now,” the minister said.
“People show a lot of compassion, particularly for children, and I understand that, I appreciate that. I’m inviting them to show that same compassion for people who are homeless.”
In the past, the NWT government has been criticized for leaving engagement with neighbours until the City of Yellowknife’s development permit process began – a process criticized by neighbours of other development projects, who sometimes felt concerns were not adequately addressed – and only engaging within the confines of that process.
Chorostkowski said the territory was learning from that and speaking with businesses throughout the downtown core, rather than just those near the building as required by law. Green said 27 businesses have so far been identified for consultation.
If the shelter goes ahead, Chorostkowski said the territorial government will continue to address any issues with neighbours.
Still, some nearby business owners have already publicly expressed opposition to having a shelter as a neighbour. They raised concerns about noise, crowding outside doorways, and safety, saying they already struggle with pandemic restrictions and vandalism.
‘It’s not creating the issue. The issue is there’
Green expected that response.
“Every time we propose a shelter, there is resistance from neighbours who see the street population as undesirable neighbours and they don’t want them in their vicinity,” she said.
“We expect that and we also expect to mitigate their concerns.”
Green said the relationship between the GNWT’s last temporary day shelter, at the Mine Rescue Building, and its neighbours had become a success story. She hopes the territory can do the same with neighbours of a new shelter.
Chorostkowski said extra shelter space will reduce the problems those businesses face and benefit the neighbourhood.
“The establishment of this service is not actually creating the issue. It might be causing some localization of the issue, but it’s not creating the issue. The issue is there,” she said.
“We feel pretty confident that a lot of the concerns neighbours might have are actually going to be alleviated by the establishment of the service.”
The debate about where to put a temporary day shelter in Yellowknife repeats a conversation held last year.
Yellowknife city councillors initially opposed using the Mine Rescue Building, saying the GNWT had not fully addressed the concerns of nearby businesses. With no other option presenting itself in time, the territory ultimately declared a local state of emergency to override the permitting process and acquire the building.
Health officials say they don’t want to repeat that this year.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty previously told Cabin Radio anyone wanting a development permit should ideally apply eight to nine months in advance, to allow for the permitting and appeals process – which has to follow the timeline set out in territorial legislation.
Asked why the NWT government had again left an application for a downtown shelter so late, health officials pointed to the unpredictability of the pandemic.
“I don’t think any of us thought, a year ago, that this is the place where we would still be,” said Chorostkowski, with a fourth wave of Covid-19 hitting Canada and capacity at other Yellowknife shelters still reduced.
“I think there was a lot of optimism. Vaccines were going to be coming and we were going to be in a place where perhaps this was no longer needed.”
Green said there was no point at which GNWT staff “were sitting around twiddling our thumbs.” The minister said officials had scoured the city for a location and put out a call to landlords last month in their search for potential sites.
“If this is not opened, there simply will not be a second day shelter,” Green said.
“That means there will be a lot of people walking around in Yellowknife, seeking refuge from the elements, using the washroom, looking for something to eat, warming up.”
City councillors will discuss the territory’s request to use the former Legion building on September 27. A vote on whether councillors support the proposal will take place on October 4.