In today’s Tales from the Dump column, longtime Yellowknifer Walt Humphries writes there were far fewer homeless people in the community back when it was a sleepy frontier town in the 1970s.
“There were some street people who chipped sidewalks or did odd jobs for a little money,” he said. “They may on occasion have drunk too much or spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around the post office.”
Unfortunately, in recent years the folksy picture of homelessness painted by Humphries has been replaced by a much more alarming problem.
Many residents are prospering thanks to a vast number of government, mining and tourism jobs. Their massively high salaries are the envy of the nation but there is a parallel city hidden in the shadows.
This parallel city is populated by a not insignificant number of residents. In 2015, the Yellowknife Community Advisory Board on Homelessness identified 139 people in the city as homeless.
The vast majority – 91 per cent – identified as Indigenous and only a small number of them – 11 per cent – were born in Yellowknife.
According to the city’s 10-year, $100 million plan to end homelessness, many street people left their former NWT communities and came to Yellowknife seeking services, looking to escape trauma and for the promise of better opportunities in a larger centre.
The profusion of homelessness is apparent to anyone who lives or works downtown – the empty liquor bottles littering the alleyways, the late night shouting and the people staying wherever they can find some semblance of shelter – many of them still hang out at the post office.
It’s a tricky situation; how can we make downtown commercially healthy and livable without parting ways with basic human decency?
Do we banish this problem to the outskirts of the community? Or do we want to be held up as a model of success for helping the homeless.
Yesterday the long awaited sobering centre and homeless shelter opened on 50 Street, right next to the Northern Lites Motel and across the street from Northern News Services.
Last week we reported that Health Minister Glen Abernethy and Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green got an earful from concerned residents at a constituency meeting at the Yellowknife Public Library.
The residents were concerned – and rightfully so – about locating a sobering centre in the downtown core across the alley from a liquor store. They were worried about violence, property damage, public intoxication and harassment.
The concerns of these residents are completely valid. It’s pretty clear that homelessness is at least partially responsible for the hollowing out of the downtown core and the fleeing of many businesses to the uptown ‘burbs.
People are obviously concerned. There is even a mayoral candidate, Bob Stewart, who is suggesting the downtown sobering center and shelter is a bad idea. He suggests the city house the homeless somewhere near Bristol Pit.
Well hang on a minute. We understand people’s concerns but the issue primarily affects the downtown core, not the city outskirts. Any attempt to push the problem elsewhere is certain to end in failure.
This was the predictable result in 2014 when the YK Food Bank left downtown and moved to the hinterlands of Kam Lake. A relatively short drive for anybody with a vehicle or money for a cab but for most of the food bank’s clientele, it meant an extremely discouraging long, cold hike with a sack full of groceries.
The food bank moved back downtown after witnessing a marked drop in customers and increased usage at the Salvation Army food bank downtown.
The homeless are downtown for a reason and its not because the day shelter and sobering centre are there. But it’s because they’re primarily downtown that the services need to be provided there.
It’s not a happy situation but the GNWT has made the right call.
As for Northern News Services, we own the building and will be watching. We strongly encourage anybody who sees a problem to give us a call.