Homelessness in Yellowknife has always been an issue; now the owners of Centre Square Mall are saying it’s costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
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The owners of Centre Square Mall and the Quality Inn have written an open letter to local government concerning the high number of homeless people gathering at their building. [pdf]
“It’s just gotten to the point that we just got frustrated because I think we’re done talking, something just needs to get done,” said Felix Seiler, Holloway Lodging Corporation’s chief operating officer.
His company owns the upper part of the mall along with the adjoining hotel.
He says that the difference between the Quality Inn and the Super 8 his company also owns in town is striking.
“The difference, especially on the occupancy level, there’s a difference of almost 40 per cent between the two locations,” he said.
In his letter, he added: “One location does well as it is in a safe area of the city. The second location at 49th and 50th however is marginal and losing its customer base due to this situation.
“This area is under siege and businesses struggle to keep customers and staff. Families do not bring children on these streets.”
Mall a ‘warzone’
On Feb., Seiler sent the letter to the premier, Yellowknife MLAs, Mayor Mark Heyck, MP Michael McLeod and Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.
In it, Seiler called the epicentre a ‘warzone’ between the mall’s staff, customers, and Yellowknife’s homeless population who he says harass people outside the building and drive people away.
He described instances where employees were swarmed or even assaulted while trying to remove people.
“Recently, one of our employees was swarmed while trying to remove a group of homeless people from our premises. He was the recipient of several punches,” he wrote in the letter.
READ: Seiler’s open letter
“Our general manager has been assaulted. Our security person suffered bruising to the ribs from punches last week. Most recently the glass entrance door was smashed. Holes punched in the walls are frequent.”
On Monday, he told Moose FM he doesn’t blame Yellowknife’s homeless for his mall’s situation.
“We’re not trying to blame the homeless because they’re just trying to stay warm, it’s really the system,” Seiler said.
“The shelters, they kick everybody out at 7 a.m. and then they have to find a place to be for the day or until their shelter opens again. We don’t blame them for what they do, it’s they system that is not right.”
According to Seiler, at any given time there’s a group of about 50 homeless people occupying the area.
He says that on average the mall makes anywhere from two to 10 calls for service a day. The mall does have 24-hour security, but Seiler claims it’s not enough.
He wants the government to do more to address the city’s homelessness crisis.
“This is a problem that needs to be fixed by all three levels of government,” Seiler said.
“They put more money in the budget so they could have people on the street to monitor the situation but that’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Seiler says the downtown core needs more bylaw or RCMP officers patrolling, or at the very least a place for the city’s homeless to stay 24 hours a day.
‘No magic wand for this’
Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne notes that those solutions are already being put in place with the city’s 10-year homelessness road map action plan.
In the territorial government’s 2017-2018 budget, $750,000 was set aside for actions to address homelessness in Yellowknife.
That includes $230,000 to keep the day shelter open 12 hours a day and $520,000 for a sobering centre.
Vanthuyne was one of the politicians Seiler addressed in his letter.
While Vanthuyne understands his concerns, he says the homelessness crisis has been on Yellowknife’s ‘political plate’ his whole political career, and he doesn’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
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“I recognize that although [Seiler’s] concerns are very valid that there is no magic wand for this,” he said.
“Could we be doing more as he suggests? Absolutely. We could and we should be, but we’re trying to work to find more resources and more capacity to overcome these challenges.
“These issues are still fighting with many other issues that are in need of that same capacity and the same financial resources.”
The bottom line is that right now, money is tight, and while Vanthuyne says he wants to see the downtown turned around it’s going to take time.
“There is no magic wand or silver bullet for this kind of stuff,” he said. “This is going to take collaboration, it’s going to take a lot of resources, and most importantly it’s going to take some time.”
Hurting downtown business
Time isn’t something Seiler believes they have. The issue is affecting the hotel’s business along with many of the shops within the mall.
“It’s extremely hard [to keep business there],” he said.
“We’ve lost several tenants over the past 24 months. Our occupancy has dropped significantly. It’s just a matter of people don’t want to come downtown. They just don’t want to stay there.”
Homelessness has always been an issue there, Seiler says, but it’s ‘really gotten bad’ over the past 18 months.
Tourism is a big industry in Yellowknife, and with safety concerns it’s hard to fill rooms and draw business according to Seiler, who estimates the homelessness crisis is costing businesses thousands of dollars in revenue a year.
“The reason [guests] come is they want to see the Northern lights and then they want to make babies, that is what they come here for,” Seiler said.
“They don’t want to hear it when we tell them, ‘We’re sorry, you can’t go outside because it’s not safe.’ People come literally into the lobby, they defecate in the lobby, they urinate in the entrances, it’s just bad.”
However, Vanthuyne doesn’t believe the homelessness crisis at the mall is the only factor hurting tenant’s business.
“There’s a lot of factors than have led to the depletion of business in the downtown, and certainly these challenging issues play a major role in that but we’ve also got to look to the larger fact,” he said.
“Our economy is in a downward trend right now and there are people struggling on all levels.”
Vanthuyne does admit that compared to other businesses downtown, the challenges at Centre Square Mall are ‘glaring’.
Between the A&W and other restaurants at the 49 Street and 50 Avenue corner, and it’s location a block away from the day shelter, Vanthuyne says the popularity makes sense.
“Clearly the downtown mall is an ‘attracter’ to those who are living on the streets or spending their time there,” he said. “It’s become the centre for these systemic challenges that we’re facing.”
Still, Seiler insists that there’s more the government should be doing to help his mall and the city’s homeless.
“We pay property taxes like everybody else and there has to be a solution for us to do our business without having to spend even more than we already do on security,” he said.
“We love doing business in Yellowknife, but we need some help.”