The territorial government ruled out bringing back SideDoor to city council as a proposed location for a new temporary day shelter in Yellowknife, despite advocates calling for it to be reconsidered.
NWT Department of Health and Social Services presented a proposal to councillors earlier in September, for the building formerly used for SideDoor’s youth centre, on the corner of 50 Street and 49 Avenue, to be turned into a temporary day shelter.
The proposal was rejected by city councillors after pressure from local businesses and concerns about safety of the patrons in the facility.
Under city bylaws, when a proposal for usage of a space is rejected, city council must wait six months to hear that proposal again.
Unless the territorial government brings another proposal forward that addresses the reasons that city council rejected the SideDoor location. But that is not on the cards, according to a GNWT spokesperson.
“At this time the Department is not re-proposing previous locations, as it is better to invest efforts in finding a suitable location that is mutually agreeable with all partners.”
The city-owned Mine Rescue Building, which housed SideDoor’s youth resource centre for 20 years, is a better option than a lot of the proposed sites, said Nick Owsun, organizer of local advocacy group Yellowknife Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown.
“They talked about lots of sites, but all of these weren’t built for this purpose or been adapted to this purpose,” said Owsun. ”They would require renovations or modifications and the clock is ticking. It’s October, next week. Winter is coming.”
The Department of Health and Social Services is currently developing a list of new locations to propose for a temporary day shelter for Yellowknife’s homeless, with several locations ruled out as being options.
The use of city sites, like the library and the pool were also rejected by city councillors. In an interview with Moose FM, Mayor Rebecca Alty said this was because there are already limited options for recreation with COVID-19, and the city wanted to keep those open.
The existing permanent day shelter and sobering centre has reduced capacity due to COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions. To meet capacity needs, territorial officials said a temporary day shelter is needed until at least March 31, 2021.
In 2018, 338 people were counted as homeless in Yellowknife, according to the Point-in-Time Yellowknife Committee Homeless Count. Seventy-five per cent of those were deemed chronically homeless.
The report also found 90 per cent of Yellowknife’s homeless population identified as Indigenous.
A lack of understanding: advocates
The experiences of homeless people are not heard enough when decisions are being made, said Owsun, and his organization is trying to change that by being
Michael Fatt was homeless for six years years, forced to live in a tent behind the legislative assembly, after arriving in Yellowknife in 2008. He spoke to the city council about his experience of homelessness at the meeting where the day shelter was discussed and said a lack of understanding is the biggest issue.
“What’s bothering me is, just not opening the door to this place, is just denying them that availability or that opportunity,” he said. “It’s just closing another door in their face. That’s the constant message, they live on a daily basis.”
Fatt said the understanding doesn’t just need to be improved amongst city councillors but among the entire community, especially the people working in these shelters.
“I’m not saying that they’re totally wrong, I’m saying that they don’t understand,” he said. “Education is a big part of it. That’s what reconciliation is all about, reconciliation is about coming to understand.”
Owsun said ultimately, his group doesn’t want to advocate for a specific location for a new day shelter, just that there is one.
“Do I think that homelessness can be ended in Yellowknife? Yes,” said Owsun. “With sufficient support, by listening to the voices of those experiencing homelessness, and by trying to genuinely understand and ask them, ‘How can we help?’”