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GNWT investigates 50 Street shelter over safety

In spite of reservations ahead of its launch, some neighbours of the temporary shelter on 49 Avenue are saying the facility has been operating smoothly. Natalie Pressman/NNSL photo.

The GNWT has launched an investigation into Yellowknife’s day shelter/sobering centre after allegations of mismanagement and safety concerns.

Staff describe the 50 Street shelter as a toxic work environment where they are unnecessarily put in harm’s way and struggle to access crisis intervention training. NWT Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) spokesperson David Maguire said the authority began work on securing an investigator as they became aware of employee concerns reported by Cabin Radio in March.

Operated by the NWT Disabilities Council under contract with NTHSSA, the downtown facility provides shelter to people experiencing homelessness and supports intoxicated clients with access to services during the day.

Health Minister Julie Green said she’s aware of the allegations being investigated and assures “this matter is being taken seriously.”

“They are in the early stages of the investigation and, once complete, NTHSSA will share information with the public,” Green said. “There is nothing further I can share at this time on that matter.”

She said she was not aware of any similar such concerns at the temporary shelter on 49 Avenue.

As it is still early stages, Maguire could not say when the investigation will be complete. As findings may relate to personnel matters, client information, or other protected materials, he said that the NTHSSA may be limited on what information it will share once the investigation is complete. Maguire didn’t say how many staff are working at the shelter.

Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC) spokesperson Maggie Collins said that WSCC is not directly involved in the GNWT’s investigation but is aware of safety concerns at the centre and is working with management to ensure any health and safety issues are identified and addressed.

April Desjarlais, who owns and works in the Finn Hansen building next door to the day shelter, said a Good Neighbour Agreement has made significant progress in supporting neighbours’ safety but that since the pandemic hit “we’ve gone backwards and used COVID as our excuse.” That agreement forged a commitment for regular meetings and communication among the shelter, surrounding businesses, RCMP, City of Yellowknife, Department of Justice and the NWT Disability Council.

Desjarlais points to foot patrols as an example of a service protecting those around the 50 Street shelter. However, foot patrols have been put on hold as a result of the pandemic.

While she said she isn’t sure exactly why that decision was made, she indicated reduced funding and resources are thought to be behind the change.

In recent weeks she said she’s seen “horrific assaults” outside the building, “some of the worst I’ve seen.”

“I’m astounded and traumatized, really, at what we’re seeing,” said Desjarlais.

Anna Chung, owner of the Korea House restaurant around the corner, expressed similar concerns.

While public intoxication and violence are always a problem outside her restaurant, Chung said the issue has been especially dire in the pandemic era.

She describes “violent fighting” and customers being bothered.

Chung said she’s often tried to ask the offending individuals to distance themselves from her establishment, without much success.

“It’s really frustrating,” she said. “I can’t just call the RCMP for minor reasons.”

By the time Chung leaves the restaurant to go home, it can be two to three hours after closing time.

With no one around, she said she’s often worried about her own safety.

Though she couldn’t speak to the investigation into the shelter itself, she said the violence that surrounds the neighbourhood has been “a big, big problem lately.”

Desjarlais points to the new temporary shelter at the former SideDoor on 49 Avenue as being a different story.

“Without a doubt what we’re seeing at the permanent shelter with regards to intoxication, violence, aggression, non-stop drinking out in public, those things are not being witnessed at the temporary shelter,” she said.

In spite of reservations ahead of its launch, some neighbours of the temporary shelter on 49 Avenue are saying the facility has been operating smoothly. Natalie Pressman/NNSL photo.

As a result, she’s calling for more political leadership to support the 50 Street facility.

“The disabilities council is reaching out and needs help, and I feel the government needs to support that,” she said.

Jordan Crosby, manager at Overlander Sports, is faced with the realities of the temporary shelter daily. While Crosby praised staff for their intervention when the shelter first opened its doors early in the winter, he’s calling on the government to find another location.

Now that the weather is warming, he said the store is seeing a lot more of the shelter clients. Between the violence outside and interactions with Overlander shoppers, “it’s in your face as something you’re constantly aware of,” he said.

Need for healing

Desjarlais said she sees a need for healing in the community.

“There are a lot of challenges with this (street-involved) population and it’s not going to get better until our political leaders step in and take responsibility and take charge,” she said.

City of Yellowknife spokesperson Alison Harrower said that as a member of the Good Neighbour Agreement, the city “encourages all partners to continue to proactively and collaboratively work together.”

Since the NTHSSA-led investigation is not a city issue, however, “the city cannot comment on any allegations of ‘mismanagement’ at the day shelter/sobering centre.”

Harrower confirmed that the number of foot patrols in the area, carried out by the Municipal Enforcement Division (MED), have “decreased due to COVID-19 precautions.” She said that plans are in place to increase the number of foot patrols downtown in the upcoming months.