A side deal secures Side Door building for the homeless
“I’m at a solid hard-no on the Mine Rescue or former Side Door. I feel I can’t be proposed to come off that stance.” — Yellowknife city Coun. Niels Konge
“Locating a facility such as this, catering to the demographic that is experiencing homelessness and addictions, does not suit this location for the safety of our property, staff and clientele. — Bill and Sandra Stirling, co-owners of Overlander Sports
It appears the fear over the pandemic has stricken downtown businesses and residents once again. The first slap in the face came during the initial shutdown while public health officials mounted a plan to keep the ‘Rona at bay and prevent any possible community spread should the little virus squeeze into the territory.
That sucked the life out of the city’s core. As we neatly survived the initial wave of COVID-19, the businesses were allowed to re-open — sort of. But it really isn’t the same for many.
I personally don’t agree with many of the public health orders. If we had community spread of the virus, I would think otherwise. But we don’t. We pretty much have a COVID-free bubble — 15 cases all year, all identified and traced, no spread — that we just aren’t taking advantage of.
I know Premier Caroline Cochrane hates the term COVID-free bubble. Sorry, but I like it. It’s what us writers call an a literary device. Or something like that.
The coronavirus is going to be with the world for some time. Maybe forever. As with the seasonal flu, we will have a vaccine that will help prevent most of us from getting it. But as with the seasonal flu, many people will get C-19 and some, sadly, will die.
We need to figure out how to live with this new disease. Right now, we are just hiding from it.
And it’s not just the business community that is suffering.
Health Minister Julie Green told the NWT Legislative Assembly recently what we all suspected to be true, “that the incidents of intimate partner family violence are likely escalating during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This in a place that already suffers the highest rates of violence against women in Canada.
The GNWT and its public health office must figure out how to keep the virus at bay at our borders, protect the most vulnerable people, especially in the smaller communities, while allowing the rest of us to make decisions on how much risk we are willing to accept in our daily lives.
But I digress. Back to the latest unnecessary bit of government boondoggery.
Despite the objections of many business owners and several city councillors, the GNWT has commandeered an empty building — smack in the middle of the most vibrant business area — to be used as a temporary day shelter to serve the needs of the city’s homeless over winter.
And what hours will the Emergency Temporary Day Shelter be open? Well, Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs Paulie Chinna and Green announced it will follow business hours, of course, with its up to 25 clients starting at 7:30 a.m., and having to vacate the premises at 6:30 p.m. The GNWT figures 40 people have been displaced as a result of the COVID-19 public health measures at the existing shelter.
Mayor Rebecca Alty acknowledged councillors had rejected the original GNWT request, responding to businesses objections. But Alty told media she welcomed the GNWT’s use of territorial emergency powers as a way to work around the city own red tape that would have prevented the GNWT from coming back with an ammended proposal for six months.
Now desperate times call for desperate measures, but this entire quagmire comes as the result of what I can only see as overly cautious capacity orders at the existing Day Shelter/Sobering Centre of 50th Street. (The place has never really been named, on the original news release it was referred to as a “joint sobering centre and day centre,” but that kinda sucks. Perhaps it should be named the Abernethy/Moses Wet Shelter, named for the ministers who opened it at the time.)
While that existing facility — an experiment in combining a drop-in centre with a drunk tank, not usually seen in other communities — has been a major sore spot since it opened in 2017, at least people in the area have found ways to sort of co-exist with the often problematic clientele.
But what new headlines could be made as a result of the new temporary day shelter?
Some background, courtesy of Cabin Radio:
The NWT government declared a local state of emergency in Yellowknife on Friday (Nov. 6), using it to repurpose an empty downtown building as a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The Mine Rescue Building, rejected by city councillors as a day shelter location in August, has been co-opted by the NWT government using pandemic-related emergency powers.
A temporary shelter is needed because the existing shelter on 50 Street is operating at a reduced capacity owing to Covid-19 public health restrictions. The territory estimates 40 people have been displaced as a result.
That last line is the key. How many homeless people would ever possibly be exposed to COVID-19, what with the effective border closure and self-isolation plans? As a result of that plan, our very few cases have been discovered and dealt with. No problem. No community spread. All involving people who have travelled, or people close to them who caught it when they got home.
How many homeless people are hopping on a plane to visit friends or family in southern Canada? I’d say none. How many homeless people are driving their vehicles to Alberta for some shopping in Edmonton? Again, likely none.
So why is the capacity at the shelter reduced at all? How small a chance would it be that a homeless person would come into contact with someone who had travelled and returned and not properly self-isolated? Super small. Same chances of a shelter employee not self-isolating if they were to travel outside of the NWT.
I also have to note the clients of the existing Day Shelter/Sobering Centre certainly do not socially distant when they are mingling outside, some engaging in the habit of day drinking. Or panhandling. Or just harassing passersby. Or shouting, swearing and fighting.
Go ahead. Tell me that doesn’t happen. I live and work downtown.
And now, all of those problems are moving a few blocks closer to a key area in the business core.
In the media reports of the GNWT’s state-of-emergency plan, there is mention of a fence being erected to protect customers and staff at the Overlander Sports store, which neighbours the Side Door Building/Emergency Temporary Day Shelter.
The lack of security staff patrolling the perimeter of the existing Day Shelter/Sobering Centre was a major problem that wasn’t solved by the eventual use of casual patrols in the area by often young staff in crested windbreakers.
As for the new shelter, Cabin Radio reported there will be “security in place during all hours of operation.” Yellowknifer reported the new facility will “have at least five employees on site at all times and possibly more depending on decisions with patrolling staff.”
There is a huge difference between “security” and “patrolling staff.” At least the new temporary shelter is quite close to the Yellowknife RCMP detachment. That could act as a deterrent. Or at least reduce response times.
But hey, the Health and Social Services Authority will develop “a good neighbour agreement using lessons learned from the agreement from the current shelter,” reported Yellowknifer.
Lessons learned, indeed.
I understand there is a need to ensure people don’t freeze in the dark recesses of buildings and alleys during the frigid cold of our northern winter. But the GNWT created the problem itself with the extraordinary COVID-19 capacity measures at the existing shelter.
Health Minister Julie Green reportedly said the request to use emergency powers had come from the City of Yellowknife. She added that it was “fully supported by cabinet ministers.”
“While there are many issues that keep me awake at night, this issue has been top of mind,” Green was quoted as saying.
Her constituency is Yellowknife Centre. She fully supported the Day Shelter/Sobering Centre, despite concerns from many area businesses and residents, who have suffered personally and financially since it opened.
Green needs to work hard to champion a permanent solution for the chronic issues of trauma-induced substance abuse and homelessness in the city. The GNWT has recently stated it plans to open a new, permanent shelter in Yellowknife by 2023. This needs to be a major focus for her in her new position.
But 2023 is a long time from now. I am disgusted that the GNWT had not taken this route before, to finance a purpose-built facility. A new facility built in an area that will be accessible for the homeless, near public transit, not near a school, but a place that will not have a huge impact on the surrounding area.
Then, more transitional housing is needed for people who are ready for it; for people ready to re-build their lives. Providing day and night facilities for people who want to party on the street, but still need access to showers and food — and internet, I’m told — is a Band-Aid solution to a major, bleeding wound that has been a sore spot in the city for many years. It’s shameful that successive groups of elected officials have simply punted the problem down the road.
The Arnica Inn transitional housing project was a really good example of what can be done in concert with a community group. But even that came after a fight with the GNWT.
Of course, the only real solution is to address the issues that drive people into distress. That drive them into the streets and on to the bottle and drugs. Mental health problems. Emotional trauma from the legacy of colonialism. Poor education, no jobs.
Yellowknife can’t be seen as a welcoming place for all people on the margins of society in the NWT and Nunavut. It has to be seen as a relatively safe place, but one that will aggressively help people end the cycle of misery and despair.
When people come here on medical trips, they need to be returned home. When people are brought here to deal with the justice system, they need to be returned to their home community where they can hopefully find supports from family and friends.
But above all, for the health of everyone in Yellowknife, the city has to be a place where the concerns of city councillors and the business community — yes, we are still in a market society, even in the federally supported North — are listened to and not bullied and bulldozed by a senior level of government.
I don’t like it. It opens the door for more GNWT intrusion on the city’s governance. Especially when this problem is one of the GNWT’s own creation.
It’s simply amazing how much time and expense has been wasted on this issue, given it all stems from a public health order that is of questionable need at this time.
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from councillors on the issue, from Cabin Radio’s reporting:
Some councillors think the territory should use heavy-duty tents, as deployed in industries like mining and exploration, to set up warm, safe spaces some distance from downtown businesses.
While (Councillor Shauna) Morgan questioned if such tents could accommodate services like washrooms, phones, internet access, and a place to prepare hot meals, Councillor Niels Konge stated all of those could “be arranged with a little bit of money.”
Most councillors felt that no matter what solution is eventually devised, the Mine Rescue Building should not be part of it.
“I want to be very clear that I do not support a day shelter in that location in our city,” Konge said.
Councillor Robin Williams called on the GNWT to develop a purpose-built facility, stating: “I don’t want to see day shelter services scattered around the city. More temporary stopgaps is not something I’m interested in.”
“We keep getting the poopy end of the stick here,” said Councillor Stacie Smith. “I want the GNWT to go out and find better solutions, go digging for that money that the NWT needs for these services.”