As Yellowknife city councillors mull the territory’s request to use a downtown building as a day shelter over the next three years, NWT officials revealed more about their search for a location.
Following a heated debate at city hall, the territorial Department of Health and Social Services held a virtual town hall where residents could ask questions and provide feedback on the proposed day shelter.
Many questions focused on other options the territorial government had considered and how the territory plans to limit the day shelter’s impact on neighbouring properties.
Perry Heath, director of infrastructure planning for the department, said staff looked at a variety of locations before issuing a public request to landlords in August, which he described as a “last-ditch effort” to find a site. Of the responses the territory received, he said, the former Legion building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street was the most suitable.
“We understand that this is a very busy part of Yellowknife and we understand that the whole community really is going to have to come together and make this work,” Heath said.
“Right now, this is our best option.”
Other locations the territorial government considered were a building near the airport on Archibald Street, Aspen Apartments, the old hospital building, a site that once housed an arcade, the Bellanca Building, and solutions involving temporary structures.
Heath refuted the suggestion that the territory dismissed any of those options due to costs, saying some of the locations considered were “incredibly expensive.” He said the Archibald Street building was rejected because it was too far from the downtown, the old hospital is currently under construction, and using the Bellanca Building would be unsustainable – the shelter would take up only a small section, but the entire building would have to be heated.
Temporary structures were ruled out, Heath said, as timelines for engineering and design work – along with the permitting process – wouldn’t see them open until the spring. He added that while temporary structures are designed to have internal water and sewage systems, municipal legislation requires that downtown buildings be connected to city water and sewage.
Heath said the territory is looking into a recent proposal to use modular buildings, but they face the same challenges as other temporary units: accessibility issues, for example, and inadequate space to comply with Covid-19 restrictions.
“There’s this misconception that a hotel room or individual rooms is how a shelter should be run,” Heath said. “That’s absolutely not the case. Shelters need to make open spaces where staff and people can see each other and you can minimize risk.”
Asked if a shelter would make sense outside Yellowknife’s downtown or on the land, Sara Chorostkowski, the department’s director of mental wellness and addictions recovery, said it’s important to have a variety of options. She said on-the-land programming is available through Indigenous groups and governments, but not everyone wants to access those services every day.
Chorostkowski said a space is needed downtown near overnight shelters that close during the day and other services. While transportation services are available, she said Yellowknife’s outreach van can only hold so many people at a time, making a shelter beyond walking distance a safety risk when temperatures drop.
Once the day shelter opens, Chorostkowski said, staff will meet with users to discuss the importance of respecting the space outside the shelter and the consequences of “adverse behaviours,” followed by ongoing meetings to discuss concerns that come up.
“Individuals who are using a day shelter have a vested interest in seeing this be successful, and they want this to work as well,” she said.
Chorostkowski said the territory plans to use the same measures that, in the GNWT’s eyes, made the temporary day shelter at the Mine Rescue Building successful. That includes a high staff-to-client ratio, hourly patrols of the neighbourhood, and open communication with neighbours. She said staff care about people who use the shelter and have strong relationships with them, making it easier to intervene if conflicts arise.
Heath said to reduce the shelter’s impact on Franklin Avenue, the territorial government plans to install a barrier to close the lane in front of the building that currently offers a loading zone and accessible parking. He acknowledged that, as the building takes up the entire lot, there is limited space outside, but said this would extend the space between the shelter’s front door and traffic.
“This is a vulnerable population and many have endured deep trauma because of residential schools and other colonial policies,” health minister Julie Green said. “It’s important for us to build their trust but, without a place to connect with people, it’s very difficult to reach them to offer services.”
The territorial government has pledged to open a permanent day and sobering centre by November 2024. Heath said that could happen by the end of 2023 but the pandemic had created uncertainty. The territory plans to hold an “engagement event” about that facility. Details have yet to be finalized.