While public health officials in the Northwest Territories continue to recommend that people who are sick stay at home, isolating is no longer an option for people without housing.
The NWT government lifted its public health emergency on April 1, ending all mandatory public health measures related to Covid-19. Capacity restrictions, mask-wearing, isolating when sick, and reporting of positive Covid-19 test results are no longer enforced.
However, those measures are still recommended by the territory’s chief public health officer, especially for those at greater risk of severe outcomes from Covid-19.
Public health officials have long said people experiencing homelessness are among those who are more vulnerable to Covid-19. As a result, capacity continues to be restricted at Yellowknife’s day shelter, run by the territorial government, and other health precautions at the shelter remain in place.
Yet the NWT government has confirmed spaces are no longer being provided for people without housing to isolate.
Previously, the territory used hotels as isolation centres. At various times over the past two years, the former Arnica Inn, Aspen Apartments, and Quality Inn in Yellowknife were designated as isolation centres specifically for people experiencing homelessness.
Jason Brinson, executive director of the NWT Salvation Army, said people deserve to have a safe place to stay when they are sick.
People can’t isolate at the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter, he said, as it closes at 7am each day and there aren’t enough staff to accommodate longer stays.
“We don’t have the capacity,” Brinson said.
Other overnight shelters in the city similarly close their doors early in the morning.
‘A lifestyle change’
Despite the lack of isolation spaces, Brinson said he is not especially concerned by the end of the NWT’s public health orders.
He said Salvation Army staff have been strongly advised to keep taking precautions and have continued practices like regularly sanitizing high-contact areas and providing personal protective equipment.
“We know that people who live in close contact with each other are going to always be at increased risk. For us, it’s about trying to minimize the impact and prevent where possible,” he said.
“It’s almost like a lifestyle change.”
Brinson said public health orders only reduced capacity at the Salvation Army shelter by six people. The facility has not recently reached capacity, he said, adding that city shelters have worked together to ensure people have a place to stay when any of them near their limit.
A Covid-19 outbreak was declared among Yellowknife’s “underhoused and vulnerable population” in September 2021 after 10 people tested positive. That resulted in the closure of the then-day shelter and neighbouring sobering centre as the number of infections rose among both staff and shelter users.
The NWT government faced challenges keeping some people in isolation during the outbreak. The territory said long periods of time in isolation could be challenging for people with trauma or mental health and addictions issues.
A Covid-19 outbreak was also declared at shelters in Inuvik in late 2021, leading to their temporary closure.
According to Yellowknife’s latest point-in-time homeless count, 312 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in the city in 2021. Of those, 51 percent were experiencing chronic homelessness.
Brinson hopes an increased focus on housing, labelled a priority by the federal government last week, can reduce homelessness in Yellowknife. He said supports must also be improved for life skills development and addressing mental health and addictions.
The Yellowknife Women’s Society, which runs a shelter in Yellowknife and the Spruce Bough housing facility, declined to comment.