For the second winter in a row, the Northwest Territories government is declaring a local state of emergency to open a day shelter in Yellowknife’s downtown.
NWT’s Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, Shane Thompson, said on Friday he will declare a local state of emergency in Yellowknife on October 19, to circumvent the city’s development process.
The territorial government then plans to open a day shelter at the former location of Yellowknife’s visitor’s centre on the end of 49th Street.
“We are taking this step because we firmly believe this is the best solution available to us at this time to address the needs and safety concerns of all residents,” Thompson told reporters.
The site, currently empty, will be turned into a shelter using modular buildings that were recently part of a work camp on the Tłı̨chǫ Highway – anticipated to open next month. The visitor centre, across from the territory’s legislature, closed in 2017 over concerns with the building’s structural integrity and was demolished last year.
Health minister Julie Green said the temporary day shelter will take six weeks to become operational. In the meantime, an emergency shelter at Yellowknife’s community arena will reopen on October 25, and remain open until the new shelter is ready.
The new temporary day shelter is anticipated to accommodate up to 50 people, including staff.
The territorial government initially asked Yellowknife’s city council for permission to use the former Legion building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street, as a day shelter for three years until a new, larger, permanent centre is built.
While the territory is responsible for running such shelters, the NWT government had to ask the city for permission as a “special care facility” is not currently a permitted land use under Yellowknife’s zoning bylaw.
City councillors rejected that proposal after several nearby businesses raised objections.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, who voted in favour of that day shelter location, offered a message to people experiencing homelessness in the city on Friday.
“I don’t have firsthand knowledge of your struggles and can only imagine how difficult it has been for you during Covid,” she said. “Beyond the regular struggles that you face, the instability of opening and closing of various shelters has added a lot of unnecessary stress on you. I hope with the opening of the second day shelter, it will provide you with some stability and a welcoming and warm place during the day.”
Green said the government “seriously considered” appealing the city’s decision but, due to the urgent need for a shelter and the length of the development permit process – which could ultimately fail – decided to pursue another option.
A ‘silver lining’
Kavanaugh Brothers offered the buildings being used at the Tłı̨chǫ Highway work camp, Green said, after the territory announced its intention to use the former Legion building as a temporary shelter. She described it as a “silver lining” out of a dark cloud.
“It has come together very quickly and the timing of the work camp being available now because the other project is done is pretty remarkable,” she said.
The NWT government initially rejected the idea of using modular units over concerns with accessibility, inadequate space to comply with Covid-19 restrictions, and the need for an open space where staff and people could see one another to minimize risk. Perry Heath, director of infrastructure planning for the Department of Health and Social Services, noted that municipal legislation requires that downtown buildings be connected to city water and sewage, which could pose a challenge with temporary structures.
Heath on Friday said the modular buildings from Kavanaugh are not individual units but were used as recreation and kitchen facilities at the work camp, and have open space. He said ramps will be added to improve accessibility.
The modular buildings will require more work than the Legion building however, and the site will need to be leveled, Heath said.
Alty said the city will help ensure the buildings are connected to the city’s water and sewer services in time.
Sara Chorostkowski, director of mental wellness and addictions recovery with the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services, said once the shelter up and running, the territorial government intends to go through the city’s development permit process to continue using the site in the long-term.
A repeat of last year
The territorial government declared a local state of emergency in Yellowknife last November to comandeer the Mine Rescue Building for use as a day shelter, after city councillors also voted down that proposal. When that shelter closed in June, the territory’s plans to offer reduced shelter services outside Aspen Apartments over the summer fell through, after some residents raised opposition.
“I think there is still a disconnect between some residents of Yellowknife and the vulnerable population,” Green said. “There is a disconnect in compassion, to understanding the needs of that population and how they can be met. And I believe that that understanding is developing and progressing, but we still have a ways to go.”
Green noted that many people experiencing homelessness have been impacted by the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop. According to a draft of the city’s 2021 point-in-time homelessness count, of the 312 people experiencing homelessness 19 percent said they attended residential school and 62 percent said at least one of their parents attended residential school.