A street-involved person says Yellowknife’s lack of washroom accessibility and uneven treatment in homeless services is frustrating her ability to improve her life.
But city advocates for homeless people insist that washroom access and other supports are available for those who need them.
The Dene woman, who is in her 30s and who hails from an NWT community outside of the capital, has been homeless for about five years. She makes medical trips between her home community and Yellowknife about 10 times a year.
She approached Yellowknifer last week out of frustration, stating that she was denied washroom access at the day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street.
“I am just coming from over there and they wouldn’t even let me use the washroom,” she said in a March 30 interview. She added that she believes capacity restrictions and who is working at the facilty influence whether she is granted access to the washroom.
“It’s always different with different staff – one staff person would say, ‘Oh, you can come in,’ and other staff will say, ‘No, no women are wanted.’”
But the NWT Disabilities Council, which operates the day shelter and sobering centre, said there is regular access to washrooms for homeless women.
“Homeless women can access the washrooms at the day shelter during the operational hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and through the sobering shelter, when intoxicated, anytime except 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. when the deep cleaning of the sobering centre occurs,” stated Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council.
“The City of Yellowknife also has public access to washrooms in the downtown area.”
McKee said the organization recognizes that female clients have unique needs compared to males and that’s why several hygienic products are provided.
According to her organization’s statistics, the gender divide among clients at the facility is 80 percent men to 20 percent women.
“Women request, and are supported, with the provision of personal hygiene items and requirements, i.e. underwear, feminine hygiene products etc.,” McKee stated. “Women’s needs are unique from men on the street.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty acknowledged that a lack of washroom access in downtown Yellowknife has been a common complaint. However, she added that city council has attempted to make it easier as recently as this year, which may help the homeless woman.
In February, council allocated $55,000 in federal Reaching Home Covid-19 Emergency Funding to the expansion of service hours for the Somba K’e Civic Plaza public washrooms.
The washrooms are to be open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Alty said.
She added that there are a few businesses in the city who also allow public to use their washrooms, some even have signs advertising it.
“There may be a case of a better need for communications and needing to let people know what is available,” the mayor said. “But I understand people’s concern and how there is a lack of washroom service after 8 p.m. when it (the plaza washroom) is closed and the day shelter closed.”
Compelled to do chores
When the woman is in Yellowknife, she stays at the Yellowknife Women’s Society, where she enjoys the shelter facilities. But she added that using those services comes with a trade-off that she doesn’t see elsewhere.
“Yes, you can use the washrooms there but you can’t just stay there all day and just lay around,” she said, comparing that situation to what she believes she sees at the day shelter and sobering centre and the GNWT-run shelter at the Mine Rescue Building.
“When we get up (at the women’s society shelter), we can’t leave unless we do a chore. If we go back there for lunch, we have to do a chore. If we go back there for supper, we do a chore,” she said.
At both the day shelter and Mine Rescue Building locations, where she sometimes seeks assistance throughout the day – including meals, washroom use and shelter from the cold – she believes the standards are different.
Chores and expectations in shelter
“The people there get to lay around all day and do not have to do chores or anything. They sleep in there all day,” she said.
Neesha Rao, interim executive director with the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said she’s not familiar with the woman’s specific situation but added that it’s true that her organization requires people using the centre to do chores. She couldn’t contrast the situation with other organizations.
“We ask women to help out because, as a shared living space, we believe there should be a shared responsibility to keep it clean and tidy,” said Rao.
She added that it encourages homeless women to be accountable and to take a sense of pride and fulfilment. The location is also intended to be a steady place where women can sleep, eat, shower and call home.
“The chore list is meant to ensure that everyone contributes equally; if someone is unable to do a specific chore because of their physical abilities, this is accommodated, and in certain cases some women may be exempt from doing chores for this reason as well,” Rao stated.
Asked about the access to washrooms specifically, she said the Yellowknife Women’s Society is open to provide that service.
“We would welcome anyone to come in and use our bathroom,” she stated. “I can’t speak for other locations.”
McKee said the day shelter and sobering centre is a “low-barrier program and it does not require any exchange of work expectations for access to supports … the only expectation, to access the shelter, is for individuals to be non aggressive or threatening. ”
Yellowknifer asked the GNWT for comment about its facility at the former SideDoor facility at the Mine Rescue Building. There was no response by press time.
Children taken away
The woman said she feels a denial of adequate washroom service is part of a bigger problem in her life as she attempts to get sober and overcome her homelessness.
She explained that she’s a single mother of two young daughters, both of whom she was forced to surrender last year to the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services.
The father is in jail.
The children currently reside with her parents in her home community.
When not able to get the help she needs from homelessness services, it makes it that much more difficult to acquire proper housing to reunite with her young ones.
“The reason why I lost my children is because I don’t have a home,” she said.
When in her home commmunity, she lives in a tent located behind her father’s house because of an inability to get housing. She takes care of her 89-year-old grandfather, who lives alone. He increasingly depends on her to cook and clean for him and counts on her to get back from her trips to Yellowknife, which adds to her overall frustration.
She was expected to head back to her home community last Friday with an open ticket but she said she never looks forward to the return trip.
“I don’t even want to go back there because there is no place to go,” she said.
‘I don’t have help’
The woman said her home community could go a long way in helping her situation, too.
She’s frustrated that her community has a transitional home for men, even when there are women and children with more dire needs.
“I don’t have help. In (my community) it is family against family and my band doesn’t like my family, so they don’t help me,” she said. “There’s only one guy that’s homeless … and there’s like five of us women that are homeless, and I have kids.”
She said she feels stuck between the two communities with neither place really feeling like home.
“Because I can’t get a home, it’s either I stay here (in Yellowknife) without my kids, or go home and then be with my kids and live with my parents,” she said.