A newly opened day shelter in Yellowknife has been offering people experiencing homelessness a place to get out of the cold, eat, sleep, and socialize for the past week. Advocates say it’s making a big difference.
Michael Fatt remembers when people without housing slept with their bags on the floor of the city’s first drop-in centre, located in a small basement office. Today, he’s happy to see a better space for people to go as Christmas approaches.
“I’m just happy that it’s open,” he said of the new shelter. “There’s nothing better than a safe place for people to go.”
Fatt, a Sixties Scoop survivor, artist, and advocate for vulnerable people, was once homeless. Now he runs Common Ground, an employment program for people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife. He is part of the non-profit Crazy Indians Brotherhood and helps at the city’s new on-the-land healing camp.
“I’ve got my hands into everything, just about,” he said. “As long as it has to do with the homeless, that’s what I’m all about.”
Fatt said he visits the shelter every day and can already see the positive impact.
“When I talk to them, they all seem like they’re in a good space,” he said. “They’re just happy to come in and be able to spend a little bit of time away from the commotion and from the basic issues of being stuck.”
The day shelter is needed as capacity at other city shelters remains restricted due to Covid-19. Even before the pandemic, there weren’t enough spaces for people to go.
The shelter is considered temporary in that it is expected to remain operational until late 2023 or early 2024, when a new, permanent facility will open to replace both this temporary shelter – a set of modular units where the city’s visitors’ centre once stood – and the existing permanent shelter on 50 Street.
An emergency shelter at the Yellowknife Community Arena, which had been operational while the temporary shelter was built, will now wind down.
The temporary shelter currently has a capacity of 30 people. Jenna Scarfe, director of mental health and community wellness for the territory’s health and social services authority, said around 50 people use the space each day, cycling in and out. Six staff are on site per shift.
Feedback has been positive so far, Scarfe said, and people particularly appreciate the quiet area where they can relax or sleep.
“Lack of sleep is really, really big with the shelter users,” she said, noting people often don’t get into overnight shelters until late at night and then have to leave early in the morning.
“To be able to relax during the day is pretty foreign to them.”
Open every day from 7am to 6:30pm, the new shelter includes a kitchen, an outreach space where people can see a nurse, bathrooms and a shower, a washer and dryer, and a secure place for people to store their belongings.
Scarfe said there are plans to offer more programming. The previous temporary day shelter, which closed in June, had sharing circles with an Elder alongside arts and crafts with the Native Women’s Society.
Many of the books, movies, and games at the shelter were donated by staff, Scarfe said, and they are now working on collecting Christmas gifts. She said the authority accepts donations as long as they are in good condition and are currently looking for winter sleeping bags.
The shelter’s connected modular buildings were recently used as part of the camp for workers on the Tłı̨chǫ Highway, which opened to traffic late last month.
The shelter was able to open after the NWT government declared a local state of emergency in October. That was required as city councillors rejected the territory’s proposal to use a downtown building as a day shelter following complaints from nearby business owners.
Health and social services minister Julie Green, attending an open house at the shelter on Thursday night, called its opening “a tremendous accomplishment” that required collaboration from governments and private business. She pointed out that people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife are overwhelmingly Indigenous and many either attended residential school or their parents did.
“We consider the provision of services to them to be a necessity for their well-being and for the well-being of the whole community,” she said.