Yellowknife to recommend building new temporary structure for day shelter

·4 min read

Yellowknife's Community Advisory Board on Homelessness will recommend creating a temporary structure to serve as a day shelter, the city's mayor said Tuesday.

The proposed site will serve as an alternative to the location the government of the Northwest Territories recently identified on 44th Street across from École St. Patrick High School.

In a Facebook post, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty wrote "while the [the government of the Northwest Territories] is deciding which location to select, we're getting the wheels in motion."

The city's alternative proposal came after it received an increase in funding from the federal government's Reaching Home program to address homelessness. The city also received feedback from the community that indicated the building on 44th Street might trigger an appeal process.

Hilary Bird/CBC
Hilary Bird/CBC

"Once an appeal is submitted, it could be up to three months before decisions are finalized, which means that the shelter wouldn't be able to open in that location until February," Alty told CBC.

She said she's heard from many people in the community who are opposed to the 44th Street location.

Looking at options

The advisory board is looking at different options for the structure but Alty said "we want to keep it flexible so that we can get the quickest turnaround as possible."

The structure would be heated, with washrooms, and "would serve the purpose of the shelter," the mayor said.

The location of the temporary shelter has not yet been decided although Alty said a parking lot is one of the "better options."

The Community Advisory Board on Homelessness will be meeting on Thursday to work through issues such as funding, location and how the structure could be built.

Concerns remain

The advocacy group, Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, has been calling on the city and the territorial government to work together and prioritize a resolution that involves the people who depend on the service.

While it appreciates the city "stepping up," it still has concerns about the alternative proposal, according to Neesha Rao, the interim executive director of the Women's Society and a co-founder of the advocacy group.

She said the advocacy group would like to know if the shelter will be downtown, close to other critical services. She said the group also wants to know how much building the temporary shelter will cost and why the advisory board is pursuing a temporary structure when there are so many vacant buildings in the city.

The concerns build on criticism that people who rely on those critical services are being excluded from the decision-making process.

Process unfair

In September, the advocacy group sent out an open letter that outlines seven calls to action which include that the city reconsiders the SideDoor building as an option for the shelter or another downtown location.

Using the former SideDoor building for the day shelter was rejected by city council in August.

But Rao said that decision was reached unfairly. The city sent out notices to business owners with shops within 30 metres of the site and were invited to give their feedback, but those that would use the shelter were not engaged directly.

She said that the permitting process only required property owners to be consulted, which excludes the people that would benefit the most from a day shelter.

"This sort of inevitably invites only people who are going to attack," Rao said.

"There ought to be some sort of positive obligation on the city to include other stakeholders' voices when making this decision."

Alty said that "under the zoning bylaw, we specifically have to send letters of notification to neighbours. But, you know, the feedback we're hearing is from all over the community."

She said she encourages everyone to send in their comments and "weigh in."

Homelessness in Yellowknife a 'crisis'

The goal of the advocacy group, according to co-founder Nick Sowsun, has been to elevate another perspective that has been overlooked.

Homelessness is "an ongoing crisis that is just so normalized in this city and it makes no sense. It's wrong. It's unjust," Sowsun said.

Yellowknife is a city of wealth, but it is also a city of mass inequality, he said.

"The fact that the majority of the individuals experiencing homelessness and relying on this day shelter are Indigenous, that is systemic racism" Sowsun said.

Rebecca Grooms, who works for the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, said she feels like there's "no progress in the city."

She brought up how the government of the Northwest Territories is willing to spend millions on isolation-related expenses for hotels and meals, "but they're not doing that for the homeless. They've always had money there, but they just rather spend it elsewhere."

Grooms took issue with people saying that they don't want to "deal with the homeless community. They don't want to deal with the drunks, they call them.

"They're homeless on their own land. So ... them not being welcomed in these places, it just doesn't make sense to me."