Municipal and territorial governments have a tough job ahead of them in finding a suitable space for a homeless shelter, says a Yellowknife real estate investor.
Robert Warburton, owner of real estate investment company CloudWorks, said the root of the problem with securing shelter space in Yellowknife comes down to the difficulty of matching specific criteria with what is available.
From Warburton’s point of view, the GNWT’s approach was too narrow last year when it was seeking space for a temporary shelter and before it settled on the Mine Rescue Building.
“They reached out to several people including myself,” he said. “They wanted something that was perfect and cheap. They had a tight budget, they had very specific requirements. What they wanted versus what the market could provide wasn’t doable, so now they’re looking again. They seem more flexible now, but it’s still quite a hard use to find space for (shelters). It’s a tough one to crack.”
The city is inviting bids to build or renovate a 20-bed, 10-room space for the homeless. The municipality is prepared to spend more than $800,000 in federal money from the Reaching Home — Canada’s Strategy to End Homelessness fund for the project. Bids close on Aug. 16.
The GNWT is also seeking bids for a temporary day shelter in Yellowknife before winter arrives. The territorial government said it had looked at more than 30 sites in Yellowknife but the locations had environmental remediation issues, didn’t meet program needs or were close to neighbours who opposed a shelter. Bids for the temporary shelter will be accepted until Aug. 20.
The territorial government used the Mine Rescue Building on 49 Avenue as a day shelter during the winter until its term of use ended on May 31.
The GNWT received city approval for a permit to use Aspen Apartments on 51 Street as a temporary shelter but that was blocked by an appeal in June.
While those apartments are unavailable, meals, washroom and shower facilities will be provided to the street-involved population at the NWT Disabilities Council-operated day shelter and at the Salvation Army, said Department of Health and Social Services (HSS) spokesperson Umesh Sutendra.
Proposed shelter bid faces outcry
The GNWT is also making efforts to secure a more permanent shelter space in the form of the proposed $6-million Wellness and Recovery Centre that it wants to build in an empty, government-owned lot on 51 Street, but some neighbours have spoken out against it.
The total area required for the facility is 1,123 square metres, HSS said in the tender document.
The government aims to have the project bid awarded by Sept. 3, 2021, with construction starting in fall 2022 and being “substantially completed” by late 2023.
Existing shelter spaces in the city include the day and sobering centre on 50 Street; the Yellowknife Women’s Society (YWS); Centre for Northern Families; the YWS-operated Arnica Inn, which provides space and support for about 30 people who are at high risk of COVID-19-related complications; and the overnight shelter for men at the Salvation Army.
Specific criteria, limited spaces
Commercial space in Yellowknife is limited and the sites that might be a good fit for a shelter are occupied. There are few stand-alone and accessible sites.
In addition, a shelter is best accommodated in a retail-style “walk-in, walk-out” building, Warburton said. Not only are those in short supply in Yellowknife but they raise other issues.
“Does a landlord want that use in their space? Will you lose your other tenants because another tenant is a shelter?” he wondered.
Asked where would be a good location for a shelter, Warburton laughed and said he doesn’t know.
“This is the problem with this kind of use — no one wants this as a neighbour. The push back you’re hearing (about the wellness centre), you would hear that from anywhere in the city. I don’t know where that physical space would be in Yellowknife. I’m excited that they’re building a long-term facility, but I think wherever they go they would have this issue.
“With the wellness centre, the GNWT has the land already. Is it a perfect spot? No. But I don’t know where they could go. Shelters are difficult to build anywhere. It makes financial sense to put it on 51 Street, but it’s a tough one,” he said. “Something like this has to be a specific place. You can’t just go build in the sandpits.”