A temporary day shelter constructed on the site of Yellowknife’s former visitors’ centre has opened, the territorial government says.
Julie Green told the NWT’s legislature the shelter, comprising a series of modular buildings erected in recent weeks, would be “vital to keeping residents experiencing homelessness safe during the depths of winter.”
On Monday, after this article was first published, the NWT government said the shelter had now opened, accommodating up to 45 people from 7am till 6:30pm daily. Proof of vaccination is not required to enter.
The shelter is needed because the city’s permanent downtown shelter cannot accommodate everyone who needs help this winter, particularly with the pandemic-related reduction of building capacities.
Attempts to open a second shelter in other locations were unsuccessful. In October, for example, city council voted down an NWT government proposal to open a shelter in a building formerly occupied by Yellowknife’s Legion.
An emergency shelter has been operating from Yellowknife’s community arena during construction of the temporary shelter, which occupies a lot opposite the legislature that was once home to the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre. That building was torn down several years ago following concerns about its stability.
In the legislature last week, Green said her government plans to keep the temporary shelter operational until a new permanent facility, designated a wellness and recovery centre, is completed in early 2024.
That permanent facility, which would replace both the temporary shelter and the existing downtown shelter, is earmarked for an empty lot on Yellowknife’s 51 Street.
Some businesses in the vicinity of that proposed location have argued the site is unsuitable, as did businesses near other locations the government has recently considered for shelters.
Green made a point of thanking residents who had supported efforts to establish shelters in recent months.
“I want to thank those community members who have voiced their support for this important work. The GNWT shares their commitment to the provision of respectful and dignified services for all residents,” the minister said.
“The temporary shelter represents another step in the path towards finding a permanent location for these services. We are working diligently on the design of the permanent wellness and recovery centre and will continue to look for support from the community to make it a reality.”
‘Not the same time crunch’
The wellness and recovery centre planned for 51 Street is currently being designed. A request for proposals to build the facility is expected next year. A small sum from the budget for that centre has been used to cover the cost of the newly built temporary shelter. (After this article was first published, the territorial government said setting up the temporary shelter had cost around $250,000 and it would cost $175,000 per month to run.)
In late November, Green told MLAs the 51 Street location is not yet definite but the territory is moving ahead with the project on the assumption that the location will not change.
“We’re going to have to finalize it soon if we haven’t already because we have to apply for a permit to the city. We can’t do that without having an affirmed location,” Green said.
Perry Heath, the Department of Health and Social Services’ director of infrastructure and planning, said it was the GNWT’s “intention to submit a development permit application in the upcoming months” for the 51 Street site.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson asked if the process of receiving a permit for 51 Street would be any easier than the process that saw council reject a temporary shelter three blocks away in October.
“I am afraid that we are likely to lose this route with the current council, given their track record, and perhaps there’s a way to pull some ropes,” Johnson said.
“I just would welcome the political insights that are happening to make sure that the application for a development permit is a little smoother.”
Yellowknife’s city councillors are in the process of considering a new zoning bylaw that would make the approval process for downtown shelters significantly more straightforward, removing the ability to appeal against their construction unless the design falls outside certain criteria.
“There is a plan to engage people and businesses and residents who live in proximity to the site of the new wellness and recovery centre. We are not under the same kind of time crunch we were with the day shelter,” Green told Johnson, referring to the rejected 48 Street proposal.
“We have time to go through the process and to go through an appeal process if necessary. I can’t predict what council’s going to do with that.
“We will present all the information we have about the centre, and what it’s for and who will use it, and we’ll just have to wait and see what council makes of all of that.”