No clear winner as Yellowknife examines temporary shelter options

·6 min read

The Northwest Territories government may not be interested in a temporary day shelter structure even if the City of Yellowknife builds one, officials told city councillors on Monday.

Representatives of the N.W.T.'s Department of Health and Social Services say there are too many unknowns about the city's planned temporary structure to know if it meets the territorial government's requirements.

The N.W.T. government wants a new temporary shelter in Yellowknife because capacity at existing shelters has been reduced by COVID-19 health measures.

A meeting of city councillors on Monday demonstrated there are no simple solutions to the problem of where to put such a shelter.

The city's favoured plan – its temporary structure, perhaps using tents or trailers – was discussed, as was a proposed warehouse opposite a high school, without any clear resolution. A vote on the latter is coming up next week.

After months of debate with the GNWT about where to put a temporary shelter, city council last week voted to fund creating a temporary structure on city-owned property. A structure like that on city property can't be appealed, meaning the process can't be slowed down with winter fast approaching and the need for a shelter becoming urgent.

But the size, location, cost, and amenities of that temporary structure are all undecided until contractors come forward with ideas and one is awarded the project.

The N.W.T. government has a say because it will be in charge of operations at the shelter, no matter who builds it.

On Monday, the territory said it isn't ruling out the city's temporary structure as an option – but it has concerns.

“There’s very little detail about where that’s going to be, or what it’s going to be, or how well it may or may not meet our programming needs," said Sara Chorostkowski. a representative of the territorial government.

Chorostkowski said tents and trailers each have drawbacks that are potentially dealbreaking.

"At this particular point in time we're looking for … an actual building in the downtown core that we know can meet the needs of the population,” she said.

Chorostkowski said the territorial government would rather use a newly proposed location at 5007 44 Street, a vacant federally owned warehouse across from St. Pat's high school.

On November 9, city council will vote on whether to move forward with that option. Mayor Rebecca Alty has already said she doesn't like the 44 Street idea because an appeal from just one resident would procedurally delay the building's transformation into a shelter by at least three months, ruling it out for some of the coldest months of the year.

Chorostkowski said the GNWT has considered at least 25 other locations for a temporary day shelter, all of which have been ruled out.

She said the territory had heard residents voice three main problems with the 44 Street location: concern that students at the nearby school could become victims of crime, a fear that students would see those who use the shelter or substance abuse that may occur, and the objection of nearby schools and condos to shelter users on their property.

Chorostkowski said the GNWT would in response create privacy fences in front of the shelter, add security on-site with a dedicated staff member, erect security cameras, and further heighten security during recess and lunch.

Mayor Alty told council she wants to see Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, consider using her emergency pandemic powers to seize a building and turn it into a day shelter.

The Public Health Act says the chief public health officer's emergency powers – which have been active for half a year – include the authority to “acquire or use real or personal property, whether private or public.”

Chorostkowski declined to speak on Kandola's behalf but said the chief public health officer was aware of the situation. The process to invoke those particular powers may be more complex than it sounds, she added.

Nick Sowsun, founder of the Facebook group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, said invoking that section of the act would protect those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

“It’s time for her to get involved,” Sowsun said of Kandola.

“We’re looking at December or January. It’s too late. People’s lives are at risk. There’s a real danger someone could die.”

Neesha Rao, interim executive director of the Yellowknife’s Women Society, described a “real threat of imminent harm” as she urged councillors to approve the 44 Street option.

Michael Fatt – who has lived through homelessness and now works with Yellowknife residents who don't have anywhere to live – said a new shelter must open as soon as possible.

Fatt, though, said he could foresee confrontations if the day shelter is placed beside schools.

“They’re not going to back down and tough little kids aren’t going to back down and they’re going to create a fight … I’m sorry, I just see a bad situation,” he said.

Among the meeting’s briefing notes for councillors were dozens of letters both supporting and opposing the concept of a 44 Street shelter.

A letter from Yellowknife Catholic Schools, which operates St. Pat's and neighbouring elementary school Weledeh, included more than 130 signatories expressing concern about the shelter being built nearby.

Todd Stewart, the principal of St. Pat’s, worried about increased foot traffic on school property, disposal of alcohol and drug paraphernalia, and the potential for children to be traumatized.

“We don’t believe our students need to witness these events. We’re not putting our heads in the sand and denying it. We all live in Yellowknife, it’s very clear there is an issue that needs to be resolved,” he said.

“We don’t believe this is going to make our schools a safer place. We implore you to find a different location for the day shelter.

“The youth of Yellowknife should be the city’s priority.”

Throughout the meeting, the city and various residents making representations acknowledged there is little sign of an ideal solution.

Many presenters expressed that the former SideDoor building had been rejected by council earlier in the year – which prevents the same building coming up for discussion for at least half a year.

Yellowknife's Aspen Apartments building was raised by council as a potential location. Chorostkowski said that was not an option as the building must remain available in case a COVID-19 outbreak spreads to the homeless population.

City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the city has been working closely with the GNWT, including having the territorial government review the request for proposals to be issued for the city's temporary structure.

“We’re looking to see what can happen very, very quickly to accommodate the pressure points that we’ve heard from the Department of Health,” she said.

Public comments about the 44 Street facility are open until the end of Wednesday, November 4.

Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio