As the NWT government tries to convince city councillors a downtown Yellowknife building should become a temporary day shelter, prospective neighbours are piling on complaints.
But the manager of a store next to the city’s last temporary shelter, at the Mine Rescue Building, says shelters don’t make the city unsafe and the impact on his workplace wasn’t that bad.
Jordan Crosby, the manager of Overlander Sports, said he had good communication with Mine Rescue Building shelter staff and was provided numbers to text or call when he had concerns.
“The workers were great,” he said. “You could really tell their dedication, they want to make a difference.”
Last week, health minister Julie Green announced the territory now plans to use the former Legion building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street as a shelter this winter.
Green warned any appeal could derail the shelter’s opening by months, leaving people experiencing homelessness with nowhere to go in frigid temperatures. She called on neighbours to support the initiative, calling it an “act of reconciliation.”
That plea is off to a rocky start.
The owners of a neighbouring protein shake bar and gym, along with a criminal defence lawyer whose office is in the same building, immediately contacted Cabin Radio to raise concerns about safety and potential impacts on their businesses. They said they weren’t notified ahead of the public announcement.
Lee Hysan, the owner of Red Apple Restaurant, has since sent a letter to Cabin Radio strongly objecting to the shelter location, worrying it could lead to the closure of the restaurant as some employees and regular customers are concerned about safety.
“Setting a temporary shelter here will cause a devastating blow to our lives and work. Our restaurant is struggling to move forward under the [pandemic], please don’t put us in the grip of a more difficult situation,” the letter reads.
Edward Tse, manager of the Discovery Inn, shared a disturbing collection of exploitative videos and photos with Cabin Radio and city staff, taken outside the permanent day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street. He believes issues like fighting, vandalism, and public urination will spread to other areas of the city’s downtown.
The territorial government has pledged to work with neighbouring residents and businesses to proactively address their concerns before the new temporary shelter opens. Green said 27 businesses in the downtown core had been identified for consultation, pamphlets were delivered to neighbours, and her department created a dedicated email address to handle questions and concerns.
The minister pointed to the relationship between the Mine Rescue Building shelter and Overlander Sports as a success story. She hopes the territory can do the same with neighbours of a new shelter.
Overlander’s owners and other nearby businesses originally objected to the Mine Rescue Building as a shelter, but it ultimately went ahead anyway.
Crosby said Overlander employees did experience some issues, as expected, but shelter staff heard them out and dealt with concerns when they came up. He said some problems, like shouting and fighting, weren’t necessarily due to having a shelter as a neighbour, as they have continued since the facility shut down in June.
“It’s not something anyone wants to deal with but it’s downtown, whether the shelter’s here or not,” Crosby said.
“I don’t believe having a shelter downtown makes the environment unsafe, especially with the great work that the people do there,” he added, pointing to mitigation measures like foot patrols.
The NWT’s health authority previously told Cabin Radio two neighbouring businesses raised concerns about loitering, shouting, and the behaviour of shelter users while the Mine Rescue Building shelter was open. RCMP were called about eight times a month.
Crosby said he hopes wherever a new shelter opens, the territorial government will put appropriate staff in place who ensure the surrounding area remains safe, as they did with the Mine Rescue Building.
‘It’s hard to see them have to struggle’
Michael Fatt – a project coordinator for Common Ground, an employment program for people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife – wants more people to support the planned shelter at the former Legion building.
“The people are my friends, my family. I know each and every one personally. It’s hard to see them have to struggle even worse than they already are,” he told Cabin Radio after sharing an online plea for people to back the shelter.
Fatt said the closure of Yellowknife’s permanent day shelter and sobering centre earlier this month left people without a place to use the washroom, shower, or keep warm during the day. He said returning them to that situation is cruel.
“I think they’re being very selfish,” he said of those who object to the planned shelter.
“The people that are experiencing the real hardships are the people that are facing the cold and possible deaths. It’s like there’s no consideration for that.”
Fatt wants to hold a public forum about the insecurity faced by people without homes and the underlying reasons why they may become homeless or have addictions. But he worries nobody will listen.
“The issue is very easily understood if someone just listens and tries to learn,” he said. “That’s what truth and reconciliation stands for. It’s about educating yourself, coming to learn, and understanding other human beings and what they’re going through.”
With the permanent day and sobering centre still shuttered due to lack of staff, the territorial government opened a temporary shelter in Yellowknife’s community arena last Friday. The city and territory are working together to provide food, washrooms, showers, bedding, and cots around the clock. Six Red Cross staff and Advanced Medical Solutions are helping.
The emergency shelter can serve up to 25 people. How long it will stay open remains unclear.
Bylaw changes could make opening shelters easier
Before the territorial government can open a temporary shelter in the former Legion building, it needs permission from the city.
GNWT staff are set to make their case to city councillors on Monday afternoon. Councillors will then vote on whether they support the proposal at a meeting on October 4.
If the territory is ultimately granted a development permit, residents and businesses will have two weeks to appeal. If any appeal is accepted, the development appeal board must hold a hearing within 30 days, then has an additional 60 days to decide whether to approve, alter, or deny the permit.
That could delay the shelter’s opening by three months during the coldest time of year. Green says a temporary day shelter needs to open by the end of October and the former Legion building is the only option left.
While territorial officials have repeatedly expressed frustration with the city’s development permit process, that process is mandated by territorial legislation.
The city is taking steps, however, to make opening shelters in Yellowknife’s downtown easier.
In a draft of its new zoning bylaw, the city proposes that special care facilities – including day shelters – be permitted in the downtown. The current bylaw doesn’t allow for those facilities anywhere in Yellowknife, which is why the territorial government has to ask council for special permission.
If that change is approved, city councillors would no longer have to vote before a development permit can be issued for a shelter downtown. Residents would still be able to appeal and the development appeal board would follow the same process it does now.