The definition of insanity
Report of assault in front of Sobering Centre shuts down street.
— Yellowknifer, April 2019
Amid reports of violence, is Yellowknife’s day shelter doing its job?
—Cabin Radio, April 2019
Don’t equate violence with location of Yellowknife’s sobering centre, says mayor.
—CBC North, April 2019
In recovery, alcoholics and drug addicts cling to many new ideas and concepts to help them find a new life, one day at a time.
One saying drilled into the foggy brains in the Alcoholics Anonymous club rooms is from clear-minded genius Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
It’s used to help explain why addicts repeatedly drink or drug to the point of personal damage, expecting it to bring some form of new enlightenment to their dark and dank existence.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are the result of either an acquired gene or learned habit, but the result is the same: insanity.
Politicians in the NWT also cling to Einstein’s theory. But for different reasons.
At civic and territorial levels, they hope and pray that any difficult public policy problem will be fixed like magic by a new study or strategy developed by bureaucrats or, in the city’s case outside agencies.
Our city council has for years been completely addicted to these shiny and colourful reports. They love them. They bask in the glow of PowerPoint presentations and consider the presenters with the reverence normally reserved for deities or rock stars.
But then the collated and bound documents are set on a shelf, only to gather dust akin to a religious relic.
And in time, the pols will again turn seek out a soothsayer to help with a civic issue — often the same problem they addressed just a short time in the past.
So here the city goes again with another study of Yellowknife’s downtown.
The ills facing the core-area are not unlike those facing pretty much every other downtown in communities of varying sizes across Canada.
And it all started in the late-’80s and ’90s, when suburban residential sprawl saw shopping malls and big box stores start to pop up. With the downtowns starting to be drained or residents — as street gangs and other ne’er-do-wells started to fill the void — cities turned to massive mall developments in the misguided belief these cement behemoths would retain retail activity, which, in turn, would also help retain residents in these historic commercial areas.
Well, these malls started to fail in the early part of the new millennium, as the attraction of the suburban mall — strip or enclosed — and the intoxicating allure of free parking kept seeing inner-city stores of all sizes being shuttered.
This has happened in real time when I lived in Winnipeg (Portage Place Mall) and Brandon (The Town Centre mall) and I have written and studied this phenomenon to a great extent. This has also happened in Yellowknife with the Centre Square Mall, and to a lesser extent its YK Centre.
In Winnipeg, they built an arena and managed to get back its NHL team, my beloved Winnipeg Jets. Subsidies for apartment and condo builders were also offered.
A downtown business association set up a Downtown Biz Patrol, to keep an eye on drunks and help curb petty theft and panhandling.
In Brandon, city leaders tried a massive downtown upgrade, with planters, curb bump-outs and a program to subsidize storefront design upgrades and rent subsidies. A skateboard park was constructed where an historic hotel once stood.
In both of those cities, the efforts helped to varying degrees.
But both of their ’90s-era malls still had many papered-over storefronts.
This brings us to modern-day Yellowknife.
Derelict, dangerous and dirty. But brimming with potential.
Its main problem? To be direct: a segment of society who treats the streets as their slummy living quarters. But they are squatters who litter, piss and crap where they want. They drink, spit and puke with reckless abandon. And they aggressively panhandle to feed their addictions.
This is the city’s main problem. This is why people don’t want to live, work, play or shop downtown.
I know, because I live, work, play and shop downtown and it really can suck.
So what does the city do?
“The city is developing a retail strategy to increase vibrancy into the downtown area and successfully re-establish downtown as the heart of the city and has retained Tate Economic Research Inc. to provide expertise on how the city can support and enhance retail and commercial development to revitalize its downtown.”
That run-on sentence heralded the latest money-wasting from our city’s leaders no to deal with the obvious problem, but to identify the readily identifiable.
There have been a couple of open houses for people to provide input, along with an online survey.
I took the survey.
It was an exercise in futility.
It featured questions such as: “Fill in the response to ‘Downtown Yellowknife would be better if…’”
Readers who have made it to this point of my blog will already know my answer to that question.
“The results of this survey will be used as input into creating a retail strategy that is intended to guide the city’s actions in order to build a diversified, thriving downtown economy with a range of commercial, retail and hospitality options to welcome both residents and visitors.”
If people are honest, the survey will reveal the biggest threat to the future of downtown retail and other commercial activities is that nobody will shop in a place that is dirty and dangerous. Businesspeople will not want to deal with the dangers of opening a store when they face thefts, assaults, graffiti and vandalism on a daily basis.
And one of the largest tumours in the cancer of despair in the city’s core is the new Day Shelter/Sobering Centre. Opened in the fall of September 2018 to great celebration, it quickly proved to be the bad idea critics such as myself forecasted it would be.
Here’s a video on CBC North’s website, which includes a story quoting authorities who offer no real solutions for the city.
From a Cabin Radio deep-dive this month by Ollie WIlliams into the problems faced by neighbours of the Day Shelter/Sobering Centre which opened last September:
April Desjarlais – owner of the Finn Hansen building, next to the day shelter – feels it’s easy to conflate the work of the day shelter and sobering centre, which are separate services.
“I believe that there is absolutely a need for the sobering center. I agree that no human being should ever be passed out in a snowbank. They need a safe place to be,” said Desjarlais.
“What I don’t believe there is a need for, unless it was run properly, is the day shelter.”
Specifically, Desjarlais contends the day shelter does little to stop people drinking and, subsequently, being violent.
(James, in the day shelter, admitted its proximity to the liquor store has made getting sober extremely difficult for him – though he also added he felt people would find their way to the liquor store, no matter where it was.)
“The day shelter is not being run properly,” said Desjarlais.
“It’s a drop-in centre. It’s an opportunity for people to go in, grab a coffee, check their emails, check their phones, get on the WiFi, and come out with liquor in their backpack when they were just in the shelter.”
It’s more than alarming that the proprietors of the city’s drunk tank — yup, that’s what the centre is — wouldn’t include exterior security patrols as part of the business plan.
But after the alarming number of violent crimes being committed around the place this year — and after a series of complaints and public pressure from the owner of a commercial block immediately beside the sobering centre — RCMP are now increasing patrols. Almost reluctantly.
The societal issues causing the homeless issue in the city — along with the booze and drug abuse — are well known and not easily remedied.
But bringing them to the centre of Yellowknife — and then nurturing them — isn’t the answer.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty told CBC North: “It’s a very complex issue.”
She also told Yellowknifer violence around the centre “is a ‘wicked problem’ that needs to be addressed.”
OK, your worship, here are a few ideas you can use when talking with various agencies and the GNWT:
- The practise of banishment from remote communities must stop. When the bad actors are kicked out of a village or hamlet, they come to Yellowknife without means to support themselves.
- The Day Shelter/Sobering Centre can’t be used as a fixed address for its clientele. I hear about that all the time in court. It might not be official policy, but some people do ‘live’ at the day shelter — eating, showering, doing laundry — then return to the sobering centre later after an evening of drinking.
- People who show up in Yellowknife for medical treatment via government flights — either from communities in the NWT or Nunavut — must be returned to their communities. Often times, the flights are considered free transportation to the capital.
- The use of the Sobering Centre during the day has to come with a few stipulations: such as being sober; not having any alcohol or drugs on them; and mandatory attendance at counselling sessions. These can include ongoing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings throughout the day.
The GNWT also needs to find a more suitable location for what essentially has become a drop-in centre for drunks and addicts; the homeless ones are using it as a residential non-treatment centre.
The territory needs to construct a residential treatment centre in this city in an appropriate location (with public transit service to the door, so they can receive visitors and venture out as needed) as soon as possible. How about in the old Stanton Territorial Hospital that’s going to be de-commissioned in a matter of weeks?
Naw, that would make too much sense.
But if the GNWT doesn’t do something, there will be no resurgence of commercial or retail activity in the city’s centre. Our hopes of nurturing the region’s promising tourism centre will be dashed.
And the city can stop wasting money on studies on how to revive the city’s core. People want to visit, shop and live downtown.
But it’s a bad place and only getting worse.
Oh, and setting up the territory’s new university in that failing Centre Square Mall will would also be a major boost.
But I’ve written about that before.
So I don’t need to study the issue again.
I’m not addicted to shiny, colourful reports. I like firm, positive action to be taken quickly to correct dumb mistakes.
Note: If you missed the link to a video I made of a tour inside the sobering centre on its opening day last fall, click here.