In Yellowknife, the race to build a new emergency shelter before winter

·5 min read

There may have been a breakthrough in a months-long struggle to find somewhere to place an emergency shelter in Yellowknife, where temperatures are set to drop well below freezing for the next half a year.

However, operators of the existing shelter for people without homes say the process is moving too slowly – and the new space might not be ready before the real cold sets in.

For months, the Northwest Territories government has been trying to find somewhere to create a temporary day shelter to cope with extra demand. The COVID-19 pandemic requires more distancing inside shelters, reducing capacity and forcing some people to look elsewhere.

At one point, the City of Yellowknife formally rejected a request by the territory to use one downtown building, setting off a dispute between the two and triggering concern from residents.

However, a spokesperson for the territorial government this week confirmed a building on Yellowknife's 44 Street, across from a local high school, is being explored as a possible location for a shelter. (The location was first reported by NNSL.)

Denise McKee, executive director of the N.W.T. Disabilities Council, hopes that shelter opens as quickly as it can.

Her organization operates the current day shelter. McKee says so many people want to use it that, with social distancing measures in place, not everyone can be accommodated.

McKee says she is concerned for the coming months and wonders where people without a home will be able to stay overnight during the winter. (A new day shelter, by definition, will provide shelter during the day only.)

“The parties that have the availability to be able to get it in place need to come together quickly, bypass the bureaucracy, and understand that we need to start putting things in place to keep people safe and keep the community safe,” McKee said.

An initial proposal to use a city-owned building as a temporary day shelter was made in August. That proposal was denied by city council on the grounds that it might adversely impact nearby businesses.

Since then, there has been a race to find a new place to provide services like food, warmth, bathrooms, and somewhere to socialize. Residents and advocates have called on the city and the N.W.T. government to establish a shelter before cold weather sets in.

The newly proposed shelter space must go through a permitting process where adjacent property owners are notified and have 14 days to make comments or express concerns.

The location must then be brought to Yellowknife city council. A November 9 meeting will determine whether or not the space is approved.

McKee says lack of space has been an issue since the spring, when the pandemic flared up internationally.

The current shelter, on 50 Street in downtown Yellowknife, has a reduced capacity that admits a maximum of 20 people at a time. Inside, people can access food, computers, washrooms, showers, and laundry services.

“The reality is no-one wants to sit out in the cold, so we have a lot more congestion in the front area and around the day centre," said McKee.

"People are just standing there, waiting for someone to come out, so that they can get in.”

There aren't many other places in Yellowknife to go. In the evenings, people line up to get a bed for the night at the shelter or the adjacent sobering centre, which is also run by McKee's disabilities council.

A new, temporary day shelter provided by the territorial government won't help the overnight problem, McKee said.

McKee worries people experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable as Yellowknifers may hesitate to offer up a place in their home during the pandemic.

That may mean more people trying to use shelters or emergency services to stay warm. (If a COVID-19 outbreak comes to the territory, McKee warns, those beds may need to be available for those who have contracted the virus.)

“People would couch-surf and be able to come in [from the cold] but a lot of those options have been reduced or completely eliminated, because people are afraid of having new people inside of their house – as well as it being a part of public health guidelines to stay inside your bubble,” McKee said.

“People will start to utilize emergency services and other services to find warm places. People’s first instinct is, ‘I have to stay alive; I have to be able to get through the night.’”

At a council meeting in mid-September, McKee told the city “the belief that disallowing approval for a space for shelter services will assist business is short-sighted and ill-informed.”

She says businesses afraid of being affected should realize those looking for warm places may be forced to go into malls, bank lobbies, and restaurants if there is no shelter space.

At September's meeting, she reminded councillors “sustaining life is the goal.”

“If $81 million can be found for a new department," she said, referring to the N.W.T. government's plan to create a miniature department named the Covid-19 secretariat, "then those parties can invest in the cost to make adequate shelter spaces and keep them open and staffed."

She added: "I think we’ve been lucky so far, but luck runs out. One case of COVID-19 in the homeless population will be considered an outbreak.”

Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio