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Mayor demands action on downtown mayhem
Shelter at over capacity, ambulance calls rise, family violence protection orders double

Shane Magee
Northern News Services
Friday, April 15, 2016

Monday evening as Mayor Mark Heyck walked to city hall he came across a young woman passed out in the middle of the McMahon Frame Lake Trail.

NNSL photo/graphic

Lyda Fuller, executive director of the YWCA, said the number of applications for protection against family violence orders the first three months of the year was double the average. - Shane Magee/NNSL photo

A jogger stopped and mentioned another person was passed out on another part of the trail. Heyck wondered whether to call RCMP or an ambulance. He ultimately decided to call police.

It's a situation that's played out many times around the city with people grappling with drug and alcohol addictions and chronic homelessness.

As the territorial minister responsible for homelessness Caroline Cochrane plans a meeting later this month to plot how to address homelessness in the city, a growing chorus of people have said the situation on the city's streets is deteriorating.

Heyck is calling it a crisis.

"The situation with homelessness on Yellowknife streets is worse that I've ever seen it," said Heyck, adding he's increasingly hearing of people on the cusp of becoming homeless.

A growing list of indicators point to a worsening problem.

The number of ambulance calls hit a recent high. The Salvation Army's emergency shelter for men has been housing up to 65 people on recent nights, above its 49 limit. The YWCA says the number of emergency orders for women seeking protection from family violence doubled the first three months of the year.

The mayor expects more than just talk at Cochrane's workshop planned for April 26 and 27. He said action needs to happen almost immediately, not six months or a year from now.

"There needs to be action from the GNWT and other agencies that are involved in homelessness," he said.

The city will be involved in the discussions and would like to support what gets underway, said Heyck.

During a Community Advisory Board on Homelessness meeting Thursday at city hall, Coun. Linda Bussey said she is still looking for additional support for the city's Housing First plan. The city's federal funding for Housing First can't fund clinical services, Bussey said.

Cochrane has said there's limited money available.

Bussey is looking forward to the workshop, which could see up to 60 people attend from various organizations dealing with housing and homeless people.

"Sixty is a big group to get a plan done," said YWCA executive director Lyda Fuller.

The number of emergency orders granted for women seeking protection from family violence was 28 for the first three months of the year, double normal levels, Fuller said.

"That's just the ones that have been granted," she said.

Such orders are granted by a justice of the peace and can be obtained through RCMP or with assistance of the YWCA.

It's not completely clear why the number has risen so much lately, although she wondered if it might be linked to the Snap Lake mine layoff.

Fuller also said since RCMP shifted to not responding to calls about intoxicated people unless there's a threat to public safety, the strain on YWCA shelters and others has grown.

The YWCA's Alison McAteer House, a family violence shelter, typically wouldn't take in drunk women, said Fuller.

They'd typically be directed to the Centre For Northern Families.

"But they're feeling pressure too because they're also not getting help from the RCMP (for intoxicated people), so it just puts additional pressure on a system that's already pressured because it's hard to meet the demand for shelter beds as it is," she said.

If police aren't responding when called about someone drunk or passed out, calling an ambulance - run by the city's fire department - is one of the few other options. From January to the end of March, there were 903 medical calls, more than 200 calls above the five-year average for that time period.

Dennis Marchiori, director of public safety with the city, said there has been an increase following RCMP shifting away from dealing with intoxicated people.

The woman passed out on the trail, the mayor said, highlights the need to have a way to help people without using emergency responders.

He's planning on raising the idea of a kind of safe ride program, which would be a service to transport someone who is intoxicated to wherever they need to go although it would only be an interim solution.

"I think that's something I'm going to raise at the workshop, is to stop treating the issue of homelessness as a criminal issue, to relieve the strain on RCMP and our fire division," said Heyck.

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