Yellowknife councillors divided on downtown day shelter plan
Some Yellowknife city councillors say a proposal to open a downtown day shelter places them in a no-win situation. Others say it’s not their job to please everyone.
Following a lengthy and sometimes charged discussion on Monday, two city councillors and Mayor Rebecca Alty indicated they were in support of the proposal. Two more councillors said they wanted to explore other options. Another said they were “on the fence.”
Councillors will formally vote on the proposal at a special council meeting on October 4.
On September 9, the territorial Department of Health and Social Services applied for a city permit to use the former Legion building, on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street, as a day shelter until October 31, 2024 – not just this winter, as previously reported.
Four days later, health minister Julie Green issued an open letter calling on members of the public to support the initiative, saying the building was the only option left. If opposed, she said, losing the building would leave people experiencing homelessness with nowhere to go in frigid temperatures.
The letter provoked a flurry of responses both in favour and against the proposed shelter location.
Several nearby business and building owners wrote letters objecting to the idea, citing potential negative impacts on business, the tourism industry, safety, security costs, and downtown revitalization. Those vocalizing their opposition included the Aurora Emporium Art Gallery, 4 Elements Orthopedic Massage Clinic, YKD Property Management, BreakAway Fitness, the Discovery Inn, and the senior pastor of Yellowknife Vineyard Church.
“I think it is radically counterproductive to propose a solution that resolves problems for some, but simultaneously creates problems for many others,” Reverence Melt van der Spuy wrote.
“The temporary day shelter is not a good neighbour, and as welcome as having a crack house next door,” Feng Wendy of the massage clinic wrote.
An open letter in support of the day shelter, meanwhile, had garnered 80 signatures by Monday afternoon. That letter stated a temporary shelter is the “bare minimum of care that must be provided,” adding signatories would make sure to support businesses in favour of the shelter and avoid those who stood in its way.
“The ongoing argument that a shelter nearby is ‘bad for business’ is founded on ignorance and prejudice. We implore you to be leaders in speaking out against the stigma and systemic racism that harm our street-involved citizens and therefore minimize us all,” the letter continued.
‘This is our last chance’
The territorial government has pledged to take measures to reduce the shelter’s impact on the neighbourhood and address potential safety concerns.
Those measures include closing the right-hand lane and loading area of Franklin Avenue in front of the building, installing a wheelchair ramp, training staff in de-escalation and trauma-informed approaches, hourly patrols of the neighbourhood, and ongoing communication with neighbours.
Perry Heath, director of infrastructure planning for the Department of Health and Social Services, on Monday told councillors anyone who uses the shelter will be informed of their responsibilities, both inside the facility and around neighbouring buildings, through an agreement.
“This is our last chance. This can work,” he said.
“If we don’t give a go-ahead on this, I don’t know where we’re going to turn next.”
Acknowledging calls for a more permanent solution, Sara Chorostkowski – the GNWT’s director of mental wellness and addictions recovery – said the temporary day shelter is part of that process. She said building trust and relationships with people experiencing homelessness was important, as was ensuring their basic needs are met and connecting them to resources.
“This type of shelter is a huge part of doing that work,” she said. “It is very difficult to connect with people … if you don’t have a place to have them go.”
Chorostkowski said the focus should be on the people, not the building, and the temporary day shelter could actually benefit local businesses. As examples, she suggested partnerships could see shelter users clear snow from walkways or restaurants make food for the shelter.
‘Watching their tires spin’
Michael Fatt, an Indigenous artist and advocate who was once homeless, called on councillors to support the proposal.
“We need to place stepping-stones and give them the opportunities, and a place where they can actually go home for a bit and feel comfortable,” he said. “Each and every individual on the street right now? They’re not living their lives, they’re enduring it.”
Fatt said many people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife are impacted by colonization, the residential school system, and the Sixties Scoop.
“We’re talking about people without any security. Pushing them out there is like keeping them in a rut and watching their tires spin,” he said.
According to a draft of the city’s 2021 point-in-time homelessness count, of the 312 people experiencing homelessness, 62 percent said at least one of their parents attended residential school. Nineteen percent said they attended residential school themselves. An additional seven percent were unsure if their parents attended residential school.
Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, and Inuk advocate Gerri Sharpe also implored councillors to support the day shelter.
Rao questioned the narrative pitting local businesses against people experiencing homelessness, saying Yellowknife’s street-involved population are not the cause of economic challenges. She also criticized the bureaucratic process of approving the shelter.
“Physical safety, human rights, lives: those are worth more than money,” she said.
“This bylaw process privileges the property and trust of a select few Yellowknifers over the lives and safety, the human rights of other citizens – and it does that on the basis of stereotypes and anecdotal evidence, and that is discrimination.”
However, Tim Syer, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, asked councillors to decline the territory’s request.
Syer suggested rented modular units were a better solution. He criticized the territory’s consultation process, saying the govrnment should have discussed a shelter location months earlier.
Chorostkowski said territorial staff searched high and low for a site before landing on the current location. Of the three building owners that responded to the territory’s request for potential locations, she said, only the former Legion was suitable.
The territory did also consider temporary structures but, according to Chorostkowski, they are too small to suit the shelter’s needs and not allowed in the city’s downtown core, where other critical services are located.
Heath said the department was open to suggestions but cold weather is fast approaching and time is running out.
“Right now we don’t have a concrete plan B. If we had a better plan, we’d be having a conversation about that,” he said.
“We can investigate options but the people who need a warm place to be can’t wait forever.”
‘Not our job to make everyone happy’
Councillor Steve Payne said, in his view, the city is in a “no-win” position as whichever way councillors vote, some residents will be upset.
While Payne acknowledged the importance of having a shelter in place before winter, he said he was “not a big fan” of the proposed location or the three-year timeline for its use.
Instead, Payne wants the territory to use modular homes on the former site of the city’s visitor centre, between Yellowknife’s downtown and the territorial legislature.
Councillor Niels Konge agreed. He wants the city to defer its decision until the territorial government provides more information.
Councillors Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan expressed strong support for the day shelter, describing the shelter as an essential service that is needed in Yellowknife’s downtown before a permanent solution is available.
“This is actually not a difficult decision for me at all,” Morse said.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m standing in the way of something being put in. It may not be a perfect solution, for lots of reasons, but I think it’s very difficult to find a perfect solution … I think that if council were to reject this today, we’re going to end up with an imperfect solution no matter what.”
Morgan called the shelter location “reasonable” and said the city shouldn’t lose time debating alternatives the territorial government has already considered. Morgan said the shelter will likely help with issues businesses are currently experiencing, pointing to mitigation measures proposed by the territorial government.
“I think we have to refocus on the most important aspects of the decision and not get distracted by the idea that we have to try to make everybody happy,” she said.
“That’s not our job as councillors, to make everyone happy. If it was, we might never make any decision.”
Mayor Alty said she supported the proposal but stressed the importance of having a good-neighbour agreement, clear conflict-resolution process, and surveillance as conditions for the territory to use the site.
Councillor Stacie Smith, meanwhile, said she is undecided as the city is “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
If the development permit for the former Legion building is approved, residents and businesses will have two weeks to issue an appeal. If any appeal is accepted, a hearing must be held within 30 days. The development appeal board then has an additional 60 days to issue a decision.
If the shelter opens as planned, it will operate from 7:30am to 6:30pm and accommodate up to 50 people. It will provide a “noisy zone,” a separate quiet zone, washrooms, laundry, a secure place to store belongings, food distribution, access to nurses, mental health counselling, case management and employment services, and programming like traditional crafts and sharing circles.
The territory’s proposal indicates a permanent wellness and recovery centre is expected to open in downtown Yellowknife by November 2024. That facility will be larger than the current permanent day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street, and will include expanded and integrated services.
Asked why a new permanent facility will not open in 2023, as previously planned, the NWT government cited the pandemic and its pressure on territorial resources.