Yellowknife state of emergency 'essential' to help homeless, says advocate

·5 min read

Michael Fatt knows first hand what it's like to have nowhere to sleep.

That's why he's thrilled about the decision late last week to declare a state of emergency in Yellowknife to help people experiencing homelessness in the city.

"I've been there, I've been out in the cold, so I know what it's like, and it's a struggle," he said.

The extraordinary decision to declare a state of emergency comes after the territory has been scrambling for months to find another shelter in the capital. Current public health orders have limited the number of people who can stay at the city's day shelter, creating the need for a second space.

Friday's declaration allows the Northwest Territories government to acquire a downtown building owned by the city and convert it into a temporary shelter. The idea was previously rejected by Yellowknife city council in the summer, citing fears from surrounding businesses who were worried it would drive away customers.

The move by the territory allows it to take over the mine safety building, the former home of the SideDoor youth centre, which shuttered its operations earlier this year. On Monday, a tweet by the territory's Health Minister Julie Green said the shelter had opened with a "provisional capacity of 15 people and going up to 25 when any kinks are worked out."

Fatt, who advocates for the city's homeless and runs an employment program to help people find work, said the second shelter is "essential."

"Winter is here. It's freezing temperatures. People are sleeping outside as we speak," he said.

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the decision to declare of state of emergency was made after exhausting all other avenues in order to get a shelter up and running as soon as possible.

In October, the territory applied for a special permit with the city to use a building on 44th Street across from École St. Patrick High School. Alty said a "cumbersome" zoning bylaw process meant it would likely take until mid-February for the site to be up and running.

The city countered with an idea of constructing a temporary structure using around $1.5 million from Reaching Home, a federal funding program. Alty said that idea, which was criticized by some activists, would not be ready until December.

"We were just trying to search for any options," Alty said during an interview on CBC's The Trailbreaker Monday morning.

The city floated the idea of using the Public Health Act. But she said the territory's chief public health officer declined to intervene, after she deemed it wasn't an apporproate COVID-19 response. The territory then suggested using the Emergency Measures Act to declare a state of emergency.

"Plan C comes as the fastest solution of all," Alty said.

It also comes with an added benefit — the city still has the federal funding to use. Alty said the money has yet to be earmarked for a particular project, but hopes to use it on something that will have a long term impact.

The territory has also withdrawn its permit application for the 44th Street location.

'Our concerns got taken the wrong way'

The back and forth saga means the territory will end up using the building it originally wanted back in the summer as a temporary shelter.

In August, city council rejected an application by the territory to lease part of the SideDoor to convert it into a shelter after a number of complaints from nearby businesses concerned about the safety of their customers.

"We feel like our concerns got taken the wrong way," said Jordan Crosby, manager at Overlander Sports, which sits directly next door to the soon-to-be shelter.

"If this is a decision they're going to make, we support not only the community, but the decision makers, that they've got what's in the best interest for the community in mind."

Crosby said he has been in communication with government officials who informed him of the decision Friday afternoon, shortly before the territory and city made the announcement.

Officials have proposed installing fencing in between the shelter and Overlander. They also said there would be dedicated staff to patrol the area, along with 24-hour security. Crosby floated the idea of installing more lighting in the area. He said the business community will be meeting with government officials again this week.

It's hard to be against somebody being warm in the winter. - Counc. Steve Payne, City of Yellowknife

Counc. Steve Payne, who was part of the majority of Yellowknife councillors voting against using the SideDoor building as a shelter in the summer, said he's hopeful the measures will protect the surrounding businesses.

"Downtown has had lots of blows in the last couple of years. So hopefully it's not going to affect the businesses. And we have to keep in mind it is a short-term solution. It's until mid-May," he said.

"It's hard to be against somebody being warm in the winter," he added.

"With our harsh winters up here, we can't have people just being outside and not having a place to go and not having an option."

It's a sentiment shared by many advocates against homelessness, including Fatt.

"People can freeze, people die of exposure, pass out in the snow … just cause the doors are closed," he said.

"The most important thing is to have a door that is open and available."