Police, health and emergency services providers came to city hall Monday to tout the benefits of the day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street while warning city council of what could be lost without one.
The presentation comes after a neighbouring building owner, April Desjarlais, complained to city council last month, saying the situation outside the shelter was out of control.
Desjarlais described numerous incidences of mayhem by intoxicated shelter users, including one where a woman was choked unconscious by a male client outside the shelter in the alley next her building. She told council a shelter worker declined to call police after coming out to investigate.
Insp. Alex Laporte of the RCMP spoke about how several services, including the sobering centre, day shelter and safe ride program has had a significant impact on the calls the RCMP receive.
Calls to the RCMP concerning social disorder have decreased by 21 per cent since 2016, said Laporte. It was around that time that police enacted a policy change not to jail people for simply being intoxicated.
“I think our efforts in the past have showed us that a law enforcement approach to the issue was not an appropriate vision or strategy and it had become a failure, to be honest,” Laporte said.
Laporte said normally 50 per cent of calls for service are related to social disorder. Numbers of prisoners being held over issues of homelessness as well as impaired driving charges have also decreased.
“These indicators show us our resources are better utilized,” Laporte said.
“The fact of the matter is that for us, the landscape has changed. Not responding to 45 calls a night related to homelessness is having great impact on services.”
The number of alcohol-related related ambulance rides has decreased 35 per cent since 2016 and John Fredericks, fire chief in Yellowknife, said numbers in 2019 are also trending in this manner.
"The program has really worked for us," said Fredericks.
“We're not taking as many people to ER and on a very positive note, it's working very well for us. My staff is really positive in this and we're going in the right direction. Hopefully we can continue with this."
Hospital visits regarding alcohol abuse have reduced by 28 per cent since 2016.
Dr. David Pontin, territorial clinical lead for emergency services, said this is an extremely complex and “wicked” problem but the day shelter program is providing innumerable benefits.
“Frankly, it is better care for my patients,” said Pontin. “The shelter has become a key integral part of a complex system of care. I've been thrilled by the impacts.”
Pontin said since the sobering centre and day shelter are alleviating pressure put on the emergency room at Stanton Territorial Hospital, more focus can be put on treating any non-alcohol related injuries and illness shelter users might be suffering from.
“It's filtering out the noise,” said Pontin. “What the stats aren't showing, because we've introduced medical care into the sobering shelter, is we're identifying other chronic and acute conditions."
He also took a moment to remind others what it was like in the city before the shelter had a sobering centre, which first appeared downtown on 51 Street in 2009 under the John Howard Society.
It was subsequently taken over by the NWT Disabilities Council and moved to 49 Street across from Centre Square Mall. A combined day shelter and sobering centre opened on 50 Street last September. The building is owned by Northern News Services and is next door to the Finn Hansen Building owned by Desjarlais.
“Without to sobering shelter, those 11,000 visits at the shelter were happening all over the city, one of those places was Stanton,” said Pontin.
“We had people sleeping in the halls and stairwells to sober up and get warm. We would go into a room to admit a patient and in the bed was a person sobering up.”
Pontin said there needs to be a solution to the problem, and as far as he can tell, the current sobering centre is the best way.
"We're keeping people alive"
Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council, which holds the contract for running the centre, said there are misconceptions about the services and challenges people who use it face.
She said it is not a detox centre or a treatment centre, but a place for people to sleep off intoxication and providing access to treatment services if requested.
“We're keeping people alive along their journey to recovery,” said McKee. “It is a critical issue to be there in the moment when people reach that point when they are able to address the issue. It is imperative that we are there, because if we are not we've missed an opportunity.”
She said it is their goal to provide a safe, non-violent place for people who are intoxicated as well as providing health assessments and case managers to help clients get needed services.
McKee said the centre is one of very few places where clients come in and are "treated like a person." Often the day shelter is the only place where clients are able to take a shower, wash their clothes and use the washroom.
"We told them 'we will build a beautiful place for you to come to, to find the dignity, to access showers, laundry, food and all the things you'll need along your journey, we won't judge you, we're going to keep you safe, we're going to keep you alive' and they came."
The day shelter has been accessed 57,527 times in the past four months from 395 individual users. The day shelter also provided 440 showers, 413 laundry cycles and 8,049 meals for clients.
Addressing the choking incident, McKee said staff brought the women inside and asked if she wanted them to call police or an ambulance and she declined both.
Police are investigating a second incident raised by Desjarlais where a female tenant of the Finn Hansen Building was allegedly followed into the building and punched in the face by a shelter client.
Nathalie Nadeau, director of child, family and community wellness with the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services, acknowledged there are many challenges ahead in providing these services within the community.
She said the department intends to draft a "good neighbour" agreement so that the department will be more formally accountable to the effects the centre is having on the surrounding community.
“There is really no magic wand around how to integrate with the neighbourhood," said Nadeau. "We need to continuously try to improve the situation."
To improve the program, Nadeau said the department has ordered a third party formal evaluation in an effort to improve the program or change present practices.
"We want to improve to do better, not only for community members and neighbours but also the people that we're serving."
She said the evaluation will inform the request for proposals to run the shelter that will go out to competition in June of 2019.
Konge challenges health bureaucrat to move office downtown
Coun. Niels Konge challenged Nadeau, asking if she would consider moving her office downtown so she could "understand what the neighbours are truly going through on a daily basis."
Nadeau said she would be willing to join a partnership with the city to move her office.
"I have attended the day centre on a regular basis, I make sure to always go that route and walk around the neighborhood because I'm highly aware of what the impact that neighbours are going through," said Nadeau.
"I'd be more than willing to relocate my office to witness the effects."
Konge said building owners in the area can't find tenants and are losing on investments made in the downtown.
"It's not going well for them, it's not going well for the city," he said. "I believe that if you were right there dealing with those issues on a daily basis, your department would be more responsive to the issues that are happening there."
Konge said he didn't dispute the need for the centre, but in how the situation was being handled.
Couns. Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan addressed the shelter in a more positive light.
"I think this is already a huge step forward for the community. I believe it's a very positive step and we need to address some of the challenges associated with it," said Morse.
"I remain very committed to this model, it's a model ... That's shown to be evidence based and I really do believe that this is the only solution that's going to work."
Morse also said that when it comes to solving this problem, it's going to take generations, but the solutions are known. This includes improvements to mental health services, addictions treatment and poverty reduction.
He also suggested taking the savings that are being realized through harm reduction and re-investing them in improving and building upon services being offered and social services.
Morgan described the presentation as powerful and what resonated with her was the message about recognizing marginalized residents as members of the community.
"There is no question about shutting down the program, it's clearly an important service we can't do without," said Morgan.