Isolation centre for 30 homeless people in Yellowknife leaves others out in the cold

Some of Yellowknife's homeless people are saying an attempt to protect 30 of city's homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving them out in the cold.

On Friday, 30 homeless people in the city began a quarantine at Yellowknife's sobering centre and day shelter. They will remain there day and night for a minimum of 30 days. During the quarantine, the facility will be closed to the rest of the city's homeless population.

The quarantine was one of the ideas that came out of a meeting of non-government organizations a few weeks ago, said Denise McKee, executive director of the N.W.T. Disabilities Council. The council runs the day shelter.

"There are some really high risk people within the homeless community that have multiple [health conditions] that make them extremely vulnerable," said McKee. Because many of those who are self-isolating have alcohol addiction, organizers are giving them small amounts of alcohol regularly.

"It's just enough to sustain a person so they don't go through any kind of health concerns related to withdrawal," said McKee. 

"I think one of the things that may come out of this is we'll have people who have reached a level of consumption that is a lot lower than what they would have over a 30-day period, because they actually have all of their needs met and they're in a healthy environment."

Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC

But those who are homeless and not among the 30 are now without a place to warm up, use the bathroom, shower, do laundry, access the internet, hang out or have a bite to eat.

"It's unacceptable," said one man who did not identify himself, but said he was a regular user of the day shelter. He said he now wanders the street. "We're exposed to everyone. We're all around people everywhere, we've got no shelter to be at."

Another man outside the shelter who didn't identify himself said he socialized there regularly and stopped by for a bite to eat. He also said he now spends his days wandering the streets.

A 2018 count indicated there were, at that time, 338 homeless people in the city.

According to Jason Brinson, the executive director of the Yellowknife chapter of the Salvation Army, the territorial government is attempting to use part of the Salvation Army building as a temporary day shelter during the quarantine period.

Alex Brockman/CBC

"We've offered them the space," said Brinson. "They're just in the process of ironing out how that will work."

One of the biggest challenges, said Brinson, was getting clients to practise physical distancing.

"We want to make sure the homeless people are safe, and that's a big challenge."

The government is also looking at turning Aspen Apartments and the Arnica Inn into temporary housing for people to self-isolate in.

Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for homeless people, said it would have been better to come up with an alternate space for those who want to self-isolate.

She suggested the community arena, which the government used for a day shelter before finding a permanent home for it.

"It might have been nice to look at the Community Arena or some other vacant space for 30 people wanting to self-isolate, while still offering day shelter and sobering services to the community," said Bardak.

Bardak noted that, with flights to smaller Sahtu communities cut off and the territorial government releasing people from jail early, the city's homeless population is likely to increase in the short term.

Outside the day shelter on Monday, two of the people who are self-isolating there said everything is going well so far.

"Actually I like it, because I'm prone to get sick," said one man, who did not give his name. "Staying inside is the best answer right now, I guess."

The N.W.T. government did not respond to a request for information about when, or if, it will be opening an alternative to the day shelter.