The territorial government's application to turn a downtown Yellowknife building into a temporary day shelter for three years was voted down by city council on Monday evening.
Mayor Rebecca Alty and councillors Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan voted in favour of granting a conditional use permit for 4709 Franklin Ave., while councillors Niels Konge, Steve Payne, Stacie Smith and Rommel Silverio voted against it.
Julie Green, minister of health and social services, who had advocated for the temporary shelter, said in an email to CBC News she was "deeply disappointed." She said the territory will explore other options.
The territory has argued that — after canvassing for options throughout the summer — the building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street was the only location as winter approaches.
Some councillors, however, disagreed.
Not all options explored
"Not every stone has been turned, as indicated by the GNWT [Government of the Northwest Territories]," said Coun. Smith. She said it's "distressing" to realize that, in fact, "very few" stones have been turned.
"We've been given one part of the story, and so has the public. But that's not the case."
Smith and Konge said they've both heard from businesses who have other ideas for how people who are unhoused can be provided with a space to warm up, rest, and get a bite to eat during the day. Some of the options that have been mentioned include modular structures and a camp that'll soon be vacated by workers building an all-season road to Whati.
Smith, who is the only Indigenous councillor on council, said it was a "difficult" decision to make — and, as a third generation residential school survivor, she knows what it's like trying to help family members who don't have homes.
She said she would not support the application "because I'm fighting for something better for all of us."
Perfection not required
Coun. Shauna Morgan, however, said a temporary solution doesn't need to be perfect.
"We want to believe that there's an ideal option out there," Morgan said. "But that's not the position we're in.
"We need to find a good enough solution to get us through the next three years."
Morgan said service provided by day shelter is essential, urgent, and the territorial government is the only one that can make it happen.
She also noted that modular structures have been considered before, and are "not a new idea that has just come forward."
The application before council, she said, is what could be up and running quickly and easily.
Instead of hoping for a better option, Morgan urged councillors to "grab onto the solution that is right in front of us" and which she believes to be "good enough."
"The risk of not doing it is much greater than the risk of going ahead with a shelter in this location."
A moral obligation
Coun. Julian Morse said the matter, described by many members as "difficult," had "never been a difficult decision" for him.
"When we're talking about businesses and some impacts that can happen to businesses, I just think that's not even close to being in the same category of concern as risk of life and limb, from being locked out in the cold."
Morse said he would prioritize the needs of vulnerable people over businesses "every single time."
"I think that is my moral obligation," he said.
Morse said he didn't believe a shelter would be a "business killer" — and that he would go out of his way to support businesses that are next to a shelter.
He also cautioned council from what he called the "goldilocks syndrome."
"Maybe there is something that is slightly better that the GNWT could do," he said, but that it would be "embarrassing" and "extremely unfortunate" if council stood in the way of what ends up being the only viable option.
Morse pointed to what happened with the Mine Rescue building last year as an example.
Council voted against an application to turn the building into a temporary day shelter believing a better option could be found. But, in the end, the territory declared a state of emergency that allowed them to do it anyway.
What other councillors said
Konge said he would not support the permit application, in part, because it doesn't have outdoor space as recommended in a 2019 report about shelters in Yellowknife.
"We're in a difficult situation, because we have another level of government that gets proposals for buildings and we, as council, don't get to see those proposals to determine which one … we think would be best."
Having been approached by business owners with other options, Konge said he believes there is a "better solution" to be had.
Konge also said he would submit a motion, at a later meeting, to extend the use of the Yellowknife Community Arena as a temporary shelter.
Coun. Steven Payne said he would have supported the territorial government's use of 4709 Franklin Ave. if it would have been for a period of months — not until Oct. 31, 2024.
"A three-year commitment is a pretty long time for local businesses to try to wade in the water. You can't weather the storm for that long."
He also pointed to a lack of outdoor space and the option of modular units that would "be a lot better."
Coun. Silverio, meanwhile, said he couldn't support the proposal because he thinks vulnerable people "deserve better."
What the mayor said
Alty said the application for 4709 Franklin Ave. is the 27th conditional permit that council has weighed in on during its term so far, and that "location has been a central discussion point."
"On one hand, yes, we're meant to determine whether a special care facility is an appropriate use of this location. However, we tend to get into a discussion about whether there's a better location."
That, she said, is where council tends to "stray" and consider special care facility permits differently than other conditionally permitted uses.
For example, Alty pointed out, she didn't tell Sundog Trading Post there was a better location to sell coffee and ice cream on Latham Island when they applied to have a food and beverage service there.
Alty said she assessed the application according to the city's bylaw.
She felt that conditions laid out in the application addressed her concerns about a lack of open space and traffic and loading impacts. She also said the noise bylaw does not apply — because the day shelter would be closed during the designated quiet hours from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Alty voted in favour of the permit application.
An uncertain future
In November of last year, as winter was setting in, the territorial government implemented a state of emergency that allowed them to bypass the City of Yellowknife's permit application process.
During a previous council meeting, Perry Heath, the director of infrastructure and planning for the territory's health and social services department, said there was no plan B.