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Day shelter neighbour 'exasperated' with abuse and chaos

April Desjarlais, owner of the Finn Hansen building next door to the Yellowknife day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street.

Five months after the government-operated day shelter and sobering centre on 50 street opened in September of 2018, a neighbouring property owner says the area has been thrown into chaos.

April Desjarlais, owner of the Finn Hansen building next door, came before council on March 25 to describe the extent of abuse and disruptions stemming from the presence of the shelter, including a violent assault on a female tenant.

April Desjarlais, owner of the Finn Hansen building, came before council Monday "exasperated" and looking for help in dealing with the day shelter. Brett McGarry/NNSL Photo
April Desjarlais, owner of the Finn Hansen building, came before council Monday "exasperated" and looking for help in dealing with the day shelter. Brett McGarry/NNSL photo

Desjarlais expressed concerns before the previous council in 2017 about the shelter moving in next door, and says her fears have come true.

The day shelter was previously located on 49 Street across from Centre Square Mall before re-locating to 50 Street as both a day shelter and sobering centre last fall.

Northern News Services, which publishes Yellowknifer, owns the building. The shelter is operated by the NWT Disabilities Council under contract with the territorial government.

"We talked about this in my last presentation, that it was only going to a be a matter of time before  violence hit my tenants," said Desjarlais.

A young female tenant was violently assaulted after being followed through the doors of the building after returning from her lunch earlier this year, she alleges.

Yellowknifer reached out to RCMP in an attempt to confirm the assault but had not received information prior to publication of this story.

Desjarlais said the alleged incident occurred despite attempts to increase security around the building with the installation of a $60,000 security camera system with lighting, plus a $20,000 upgrade to fencing.

She said getting the cameras opened her eyes to the true scale of the problem.

From what she has seen watching security footage, Desjarlais said she could fill "several books" with descriptions of public indecency, drunkenness, aggressive behaviour, threats and assaults.

Desjarlais recounted an especially troubling story of violence she said she had witnessed where a woman was choked by a man until she lost consciousness and was left in the alley.

"It was shocking to see this," said Desjarlais. "A tenant ran outside because they saw it from their window mortified. A day shelter worker came over and when we insisted that the police be called the worker said, 'Don't worry about calling the police, we don't need the police here.'"

The day shelter and sobering centre opened on 50th Street, right next to the Northern Lites Motel and across the street from the Northern News Services office. NNSL file photo

"I don't even know in what world that is acceptable but we've made it acceptable on the street. We've made it acceptable at that shelter."

She said she finds it quite hard to review the footage and usually leaves it to her husband or business partner but felt compelled to watch before coming to council.

"An unfortunate realization came to me," said Desjarlais. "The majority, 95 per cent of the abuse I've seen on video was being done to Indigenous females."

Desjarlais said promises were made that the day shelter and sobering centre would be run better than the last day shelter with minimal negative effects on the surrounding community.

"If you were to sit there and watch my security tapes you'd know that is not possible," she said.

"It's almost as if the GNWT is operating a popular bar except the drinking area is right outside the direct area of responsibility.”

Desjarlais asked council to exercise the conditions they placed on the day shelter through conditional permitting and force Health Minister Glen Abernethy, "who has failed in his commitment to all of us" to close the day shelter and sobering centre.

"This has to stop. I'm exasperated and I came here to ask for help."

Coun. Stacie Smith said the day shelter is there for a purpose but it's not meeting that purpose because people are allowed to run rampant within it.

"The day shelter facilitators don't have the means to protect themselves let alone other people," said Smith.

"The fact that a woman was left choked-out on the side of the street and this worker said 'don't call the RCMP', that's wrong. Completely and utterly wrong."

Coun. Niels Konge asked administration what it can do to take away the conditional use permit, saying downtown revitalization cannot happen with this free-for-all happening.

"As a council we are responsible for all citizens in our community and it certainly is not good when 700 unique clients are basically destroying a neighborhood," said Konge.

"People need to be accountable for their actions and when you enable them, it continues to go on and on in a free-for-all."

Coun. Julian Morse said the key is to focus on harm reduction and addressing the complex issues of alcohol abuse in the community.

"I do want to draw a line between the concepts of harm reduction and addressing the problems associated with homelessness and the other problem of public intoxication and violence which is not acceptable."

Morse pointed out that if the day shelter is shut down it won't make the issues go away.

"By removing the shelter, no one will suddenly disappear. They will need to go somewhere, whether the library or the mall. In some way people are impacted."

Morse said they need to work together with the GNWT toward creative solutions for the problem.

Councillors also explored the possibility of moving the downtown liquor store away from the shelter as it is run on a government contract.

Mayor Rebecca Alty said this is a "wicked problem" that needs to be addressed. Alty said the city has requested that the Department of Health and Social Services come and present an update on the shelter. She said she hopes it will be sometime soon.

Yellowknifer has reached out to NWT Disabilities Council and Minister Abernethy for comment and has not heard back by publication time.