On the eve of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority hosted a virtual town hall to discuss the proposed temporary day shelter location and logistics in downtown Yellowknife.
The town hall heard a brief opening address from Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green and then deputy minister Bruce Cooper, but relied on department staff who’ve been in the logistics hotseat to speak to the nuts and bolts.
The event included the same talking points included in Minister Julie Green’s Open Letter to the Community, circulated Sept. 13.
Since then, hundreds of Yellowknifers have signed a letter petitioning Yellowknife businesses to support the proposed, temporary downtown shelter, warning they may boycott those who openly oppose it.
The most passionate plea for the shelter on Sept. 29 came from Michael Fatt, a Yellowknife artist and advocate for those experiencing homelessness and dealing with substance abuse.
Fatt told attendees he’d been homeless his whole life after he was taken from his family in the Sixties Scoop.
“I’ve been homeless in four provinces and five cities, including Yellowknife,” he said. “Winter’s right around the corner. I’m worried for my friends and family on the streets. We’ve been through this before. We’ve lost people.
“We’re failing,” he said. “I’m out there every day, on the front lines. They’re my friends.”
He implored those at the forum to open their hearts to the over 300 people in Yellowknife experiencing homelessness, the vast majority of whom are Indigenous and a significant percentage are the living legacy of colonial oppression and residential schools, according to Fatt.
“They were here long before us. This is their land,” he said. “They’re not living their lives one bit; they’re enduring. If we leave them with no options, we’re killing them.
“It’s not the solution, but it is a stepping stone,” he said of the shelter. “I appeal to your hearts to allow this door to open.”
While presenters for the Health Authority acknowledged “this will impact the neighbourhood,” they said the plan is to have shelter staff, who know the shelter users and are trained in conflict de-escalation, make hourly patrols around the outside of the facility. They said the department has the staff to do this and they are already trained.
“Patrols are necessary and are something we plan to provide,” a department representative told the audience.
They also said the department is prepared to sign a “good neighbour agreement” with neighbouring businesses at the former Legion building, located at Franklin Avenue and 48 Street. As well, shelter staff will share their concerns with users regularly and, when appropriate, remind users what it means to be a good neighbour, they committed.
The presenters acknowledged the department’s past communications issues and told Yellowknifers the department has resolved to open communication and collaboration with the community at-large as well as with other departments of the territorial government.
They held up the town hall as a demonstration of the department’s commitment, saying the forum was designed to hear community voices beyond those who live nearby or do business within a 30-metre radius of the proposed site as required by law.
Questions from community members were largely connected to security at the proposed shelter site and whether the department had really considered all the options.
One commenter was concerned about the increased number of people smoking on the busy downtown corner.
In the end, the Health and Social Services minister was frank:
“It truly is our last option. We do not have any more aces up our sleeve,” Green said.