The battle to provide a Yellowknife day shelter during the pandemic
Some of Yellowknife’s most vulnerable residents struggled to access basic services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Red tape, conflicts and discrimination were at the heart of the issue.
Throughout the pandemic, public health officials in the NWT said people experiencing homelessness were among those most at risk of severe outcomes from Covid-19.
Yet on several occasions over the past two years, many were left without a safe place to go during the day and access to washrooms, showers and laundry facilities was limited.
Municipal and territorial politicians argued over how best to address the issue and who was responsible. Meanwhile, public debate about where to locate shelters led to increasing tensions as residents launched petitions for and against such facilities.
A temporary day shelter in Yellowknife opened and closed its doors several times, moving to four different locations between 2020 and 2021. In both years, the territorial government resorted to local states of emergency to ensure people without housing had a warm place to go on frigid winter days.
Advocates said service gaps were “unacceptable” and expressed frustration that vulnerable people were being negatively impacted. Politicians pointed fingers at one another.
Internal documents obtained by Cabin Radio reveal some of the issues that contributed to the turbulence. Among the challenges were communications breakdowns, confusion over legislation, a lack of planning, and lots of bureaucracy.
The impact of Covid-19
When the NWT government declared a territory-wide public health emergency on March 18, 2020, screening and capacity restrictions were introduced at shelters to slow the spread of the virus. But that led to another problem – there weren’t enough spaces to accommodate everyone experiencing homelessness.
To compensate for the reduced capacity at the day and sobering centre in Yellowknife (which went from a limit of 90 people to 20), the NWT government opened an additional temporary day shelter at the Salvation Army on March 30, which could accommodate 18 people at a time.
According to staff at the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services, 30 to 50 people were using the Salvation Army temporary shelter while overnight shelters were closed. The NWT government said around 100 people per day used both the temporary shelter and the permanent day shelter.
When the temporary day shelter closed at the end of July 2020, the NWT government attributed the closure to the Salvation Army’s desire to resume church services. A letter to the NWT government obtained by Cabin Radio indicates the shelter was also having a “significant impact” on many of the Salvation Army’s other services, including withdrawal management, supportive living and food assistance.
By August 2020, there was no replacement for the Salvation Army temporary day shelter. Instead, territorial staff distributed food and essential supplies outside Yellowknife’s Aspen Apartments, serving around 50 people in need. Even that required approval from the territory’s chief environmental health officer, the city’s fire division and the federal government.
A ‘long and unsuccessful search’
Staff at the Department of Health and Social Services then began what was ultimately a “long and unsuccessful” search for a place to set up a new shelter. They looked at 26 potential locations in Yellowknife, ranging from a bowling alley to a former car dealership. All were either unavailable or unsuitable, or the buildings’ landlords declined to lease their buildings for use as a shelter.
One site considered ideal – the former Mine Rescue Building, which, until the summer of 2020, had housed a youth resource centre – was rejected by city councillors in August 2020 after neighbouring businesses expressed concern about safety and economic impacts.
“We really have looked everywhere. I think there is a perception that we haven’t really exhausted all the options,” one territorial government staff member stated in an email at the time.
In another, a GNWT worker reminded the city that “the issue does not go away just because we don’t give them a building to go to.”
Internal emails show the frustration of health and social services staff with city councillors’ stance on the matter.
In an August 18, 2020 email, an NWT government employee described what they felt were “stigmatizing attitudes and generalizations” from many city councillors and “general misinformation” about people experiencing homelessness. That included a “tone” suggesting all people experiencing homelessness are dangerous, have addictions, are criminals, and need to be “contained,” and that the territorial government was trying to “dump” the issue on the city instead of taking responsibility.
The email alleges one member of council said this was “not their issue to solve” as they had fulfilled their “contribution to social issues in the city” by supporting two-thirds of the cost of the street outreach service, which is operated by the Yellowknife Women’s Society.
The search continues
In October 2020, the NWT government landed on a federally owned warehouse on 44 Street as a viable option for a day shelter. That warehouse is near the city’s Weledeh and St Patrick schools.
The Department of Health and Social Services needed approval from other NWT departments, the federal government and the city for a range of modifications before the warehouse could be considered. Staff were racing against the clock to open a day shelter before winter set in.
“I know we are moving as fast as possible in this department, but bureaucratic wrangling with others cannot contribute to any more cold people,” Bruce Cooper, the department’s deputy minister, wrote to staff in an email on October 28. “This is an emergency and we need to take that approach with infrastructure and the fire marshal.”
Another territorial employee told the federal government: “It is beyond me that we are going through so much in the territory to secure a safe space for our vulnerable residents.”
Like the Mine Rescue Building, the warehouse location faced opposition from some residents.
In a letter to Yellowknife’s mayor and council dated October 29, the chair of Yellowknife Catholic Schools’ board of trustees said students would be exposed to “unusual and unsafe elements” including “foul language, fights, verbal and physical violence, people removing their clothes in front of the building, body fluids and excrement on sidewalks as well as frequent RCMP and emergency services.”
“Under no circumstances will we agree to the use of this location.” the letter reads.
With time running out, city councillors decided to forge ahead with their own solution. Despite arguments from the NWT government that temporary structures like tents wouldn’t be suitable as a day shelter, councillors voted in favour of using federal funding the city had been granted to address homelessness to purchase such a structure. Councillors planned to put it on city property for use as a day shelter to circumvent the lengthy permitting process.
“I know the department of health has some concerns about a temporary structure, but I believe the concerns can be overcome and it’ll be the fastest solution to get a day shelter up and running,” Mayor Rebecca Alty wrote to health and social services minister Julie Green.
“We’re offering an alternative location for you to use – which may not check every box but it will check the majority and will be ready sooner than the physical locations allow. The main thing: it’ll be a warm space with access to washrooms. Food will probably have to be brought in … I hope that you don’t rule this option out just because it doesn’t have a kitchen.”
Shaleen Woodward, principal secretary to Premier Caroline Cochrane, cautioned Green that the territorial government “would not want to reject a tent out of hand” as it was using similar temporary structures to house its own staff working at a South Slave border checkpoint outside Enterprise.
Nevertheless, an email shows health and social services staff were worried a temporary structure could not serve as a shelter. They listed concerns about the integrity of the structure, safety, “optics”, capacity issues, whether they would be able to deliver programming, and how staff would be able to screen people for Covid-19 or adequately clean and sanitize the space.
Deputy minister Cooper escalated those concerns in a letter to Dr Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer – and raised the prospect of whether Dr Kandola could use her powers under the NWT’s Public Health Act to commandeer the Mine Rescue Building.
“At this point, with temperatures plunging, this is a proposal and not a plan that responds fast enough to the issues being faced by vulnerable people,” Cooper wrote.
“I have grave concerns for the safety of these members of our community and my concern grows daily as the temperature continues to drop.”
Kandola responded that her emergency powers were specific to the Covid-19 pandemic and not meant to be used to deliver social programming.
Ultimately, after discussing the matter with the city, the territory’s minister of municipal and community affairs declared a local state of emergency in Yellowknife to appropriate the Mine Rescue Building on November 6. The temporary day shelter opened its doors a few days later, on November 9.
Shelter on the move, again
While the territorial government initially hoped Covid-19 restrictions would end by July 2021, health and social services staff recognized by at least April that the temporary day shelter would still be needed – and they would need to find another location.
Staff also acknowledged that even before the pandemic, capacity at the existing day shelter wasn’t adequate to meet the needs of Yellowknife’s homeless population.
The city told the territorial government to apply to use another site by mid-July 2021 so a fresh day shelter could open by mid-October.
When the local state of emergency did end on May 31, users of the temporary day shelter were given little notice that the Mine Rescue Building would be closing its doors. Again, the NWT government did not have a replacement prepared so instead planned to use space outside Aspen Apartments to distribute food. Staff obtained the required city permit to do so.
This time, however, the territory decided to expand those limited services at Aspen Apartments to include picnic tables, hand-washing stations, garbage bins and portable washrooms. That attracted the attention of at least one resident, who complained to the city that the NWT government had not waited the required 14 days to allow residents to appeal the development permit. Just days after the makeshift shelter began operating, those services abruptly stopped.
While the minister of health and social services placed blame on the city’s bylaws, the municipal development process is governed by territorial legislation. Staff at the department seemed unaware of those rules and criticized city staff for not providing better communication.
In an email on June 5, one territorial employee said a city staff member “gave zero indication” they had to wait to set up the distribution centre, adding the 14-day wait period was never mentioned in any emails from the city.
“I’m not really sure what the issue is or where the confusion lies,” they wrote.
After an appeal against the Aspen Apartments plan was filed, the territorial government withdrew its application for a development permit as it would have to wait up to 90 days for the development appeal board to make a decision.
“I know this is disheartening and exhausting,” deputy minister Cooper wrote to his staff on June 8.
“We find ourselves, yet again, working to find options to continue providing a meal and essential service to a vulnerable population.”
‘Things went sideways’
Emails indicate the relationship between the city and territory began to improve. Discussions about opening another day shelter made headway. The NWT government stressed to the city that showing residents they were working together on the issue was important.
Then, in late June 2021, the city’s community advisory board on homelessness accepted a territorial request to spend $800,000 of the city’s federal funding to help purchase a “sprung-type structure” to use as a day shelter. However, at a meeting just two days later, the territorial government said “things went sideways” and the board withdrew that offer.
“I am at a loss for words,” one health and social services employee wrote in response to the decision.
According to that email, community advisory board members believed the NWT government was working on its own solution, possibly involving another state of emergency to appropriate a building. The city was concerned that the limited length of time the temporary shelter could remain open would not meet the requirements of the federal funding.
Once again, the territorial government resumed its search for a shelter location, issuing a public request to interested landlords and examining more than 30 potential sites ranging from churches, parking lots and hotels to Yellowknife’s former hospital, a building that once housed an arcade, and vacant lots.
A map indicates locations the NWT government examined for a day shelter between March 2020 and December 2021.
Recognizing the negative response the previous year, the territorial government changed its approach to informing residents about its plans, attempting to be more forthright.
When the NWT government landed on a building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street as the “right choice” for the day shelter, health minister Green announced the proposal in a public letter, hoping residents would be supportive. Territorial staff held a virtual town hall about the latest proposed day shelter and created a dedicated email address to which residents could ask questions or provide feedback.
But the backlash was swift, with several nearby business owners filing complaints. In response, someone painted messages on the sidewalk outside the building stating “where do people without a home sleep at night when it is -50 outside?” and “white people scare me.”
In early October 2021, city councillors rejected the territory’s plan to use that building in a four-to-three vote. Some councillors said better options were available. Others said standing in the way of another day shelter was “extremely unfortunate, embarrassing, problematic, and just untenable.”
While things appeared to be at a standstill, the city, territory and a local business worked together to come up with a solution.
In the following months, a shelter was constructed on a vacant lot where the city’s visitors’ centre once stood, using modular buildings that had previously formed a camp for workers on the Tłı̨chǫ Highway. The territory declared a local state of emergency to bypass the municipal permitting process and an interim shelter was opened at the city’s arena before the new temporary day shelter opened its doors in December 2021.
At an open house shortly after it opened, advocates and politicians praised the new day shelter for its positive impact.
Impact on vulnerable people
While debates about the day shelter largely took place between politicians, public servants, and downtown business owners, they often left out those most affected by the issue.
On the day the shelter at the Mine Rescue Building closed its doors, one staff member described the sudden closure to Cabin Radio as another thing being taken away from people who already had so little.
A month later, another shelter worker, responding to public outcry about a proposed shelter location, said: “I can’t imagine someone petitioning my neighbourhood to have me move out.”
Michael Fatt, a Sixties Scoop survivor, artist, and advocate for vulnerable people, was once homeless himself.
Fatt said people experiencing homelessness are used to having resources taken away and hearing complaints. He said what’s important is that day shelters continue to open and people have a safe place to go.
“All these closing doors, what happens is the bottom rung on the ladder of life is basically getting sawed off,” he said. “The services should be providing that bottom rung back on the ladder of life, giving them a hand up.”
Fatt said the current system is not working and people are falling through the cracks. He would like to see services addressing trauma, mental health, addictions and homelessness brought together and a pathway created.
“I think the problem is a colonial kind of idealism that was put into the original system, and it’s still there,” he said. “We have to get to the root of the problem.
“If we really put our minds to it and, as a community, come together, we can do things together. We could come up with ideas.”
Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for vulnerable people in Yellowknife, said there needs to be greater understanding of the role trauma plays in addictions and homelessness.
“I understand that a lot of people see loud, rude, crude, drunk, obnoxious behaviours,” Bardak said. “I’m witnessing some of the most disabled people I’ve ever met in my life and thinking, ‘How have we let people with severe, chronic and multiple disabilities languish in the streets?’
What does that say of our society when we treat some of our most vulnerable people that way? The people who are frustrated by it, some of them just don’t understand sometimes.”
How Yellowknife compares
While Yellowknife has faced ongoing challenges addressing homelessness, it is not alone – particularly when it comes to conflicts between levels of government and complaints from neighbours of shelters.
“This has been quite a pervasive issue across Canadian cities,” said Sandeep Agrawal, a professor and director of the school of urban and regional planning at the University of Alberta.
In British Columbia, for example, Global News reported the City of Penticton filed a court petition in 2021, challenging the province’s attempt to override a city council decision and keep a downtown emergency shelter open. According to the CBC, the city ultimately dropped its lawsuit after the province announced plans to relocate the shelter.
In late 2018, the City of Nanaimo and the province clashed over a supportive housing complex. The Victoria Times Colonist reported in 2019 that the BC Supreme Court upheld the province’s right to bypass municipal zoning rules in establishing that complex.
In London, Ontario, the city planned temporary homeless shelters at municipal golf courses – far from the city’s downtown – following complaints that a previous shelter had negatively impacted the privacy of homeowners and “attracted uninvited guests.” Advocates expressed concern that the distance between the shelter and other supports would be harmful to the health and wellbeing of shelter users.
“It is quite devastating for people who are either chronically homeless, or at risk of homelessness and looking for a shelter, when the shelter location moves – especially in Yellowknife,” Agrawal said.
Where things stand now
The NWT has lifted its pandemic state of emergency, meaning capacity restrictions are no longer mandatory.
Even so, the territory’s health authority said capacity at Yellowknife’s temporary day shelter remains capped at 45 people and other health precautions are still in place.
The NWT government said in March it had received the necessary city permits to keep the shelter open without a local state of emergency.
The territory’s plan is to keep operating the latest facility until a larger recovery and wellness centre opens, currently anticipated in 2024.
But other doors continue to close.
The temporary day shelter is now the only day shelter operating in Yellowknife. A day shelter located on 50 Street recently closed permanently, though its neighbouring overnight sobering centre remains open.