A new citizens group is urging the City of Yellowknife to take immediate action on securing a day shelter before the onset of winter and a possible second wave of Covid-19.
Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown formed about one week ago and launched its Facebook page on Friday, said organizer Nick Sowsun.
Its call to action comes almost two weeks after Yellowknife city council rejected a proposal to make the city-owned Mine Rescue Building on 49 Avenue a new shelter. It was formerly the site of Side Door Youth Ministries.
“We were caught off guard when city council rejected the proposal without having an opportunity to hear from street-involved residents, or front-line workers, medical professionals, or organizations that work with the street-involved,” said Sowsun. “We were disappointed that the city didn’t have an opportunity to hear those perspectives.
“That’s when we started organizing a response. We said, ‘What should we do?’”
The group posted on its Facebook page a list of seven actions it wants the city to take, among them working immediately with the GNWT to find a suitable location for an emergency shelter downtown or reconsideration of the Mine Rescue site, using an evidence-based approach to its assessment of the value and location of emergency day shelters. The activists want the municipality to honour its 2017 pledge to eliminate homelessness in 10 years.
“We’re (also) asking the city to follow through with its 2019 commitments to reconciliation. The majority of the street-involved people are Indigenous. They’re survivors of residential schools or the children of residential school survivors,” said Sowsun, adding that the city’s actions to find a day shelter would also help “combat stigma against the street-involved population and to fight systemic racism.”
Sowsun said his organization isn’t recommending any possible shelter locations as it believes that decision is one for the local and territorial governments.
“We shouldn’t be the ones to choose the location. The city and the GNWT need to decide on that based on best evidence and all the factors that would go into a decision like that,” he said.
The group, which had 160 members on Facebook as of Tuesday morning, has been speaking with some city councillors whom Sowsun said were disappointed with council’s Aug. 24 decision to reject the Mine Rescue Building shelter idea. The organization has also spoken with representatives of the territorial government.
“As we understand it, the GNWT wants to work with the city on this issue. The GNWT seems to be a willing partner,” said Sowsun. “From my perspective, it’s now on the city to be a willing partner and to address this issue.”
However, Coun. Niels Konge disputes that the city should choose possible shelter locations.
“The shelter falls directly under the GNWT realm of responsibility,” he said. “So it is for them to sort out. Council has the responsibility for conditionally permitted uses, such as shelters. Council decided as a group to not support the Side Door location. That cannot be reconsidered now for six months, according to our rules.
“It is up to the GNWT to do this and then when they have one they need to go through the development permit process that is in place just like any other business/organization and resident would have to. They have options. Wall tents in the (legislative assembly) area, the old hospital, wall tents around the hospital, work with Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation or other organizations. But let’s be very clear, the city is a partner in this, but we are not and should not be the lead. The GNWT offloads a lot of things already onto the city.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty said the City is working with the territorial government’s Department of Health and Social Services (HSS) to find a solution to the shelter issue.
“As the day shelter is a GNWT program, HSS is considering alternate options and locations, and they are reviewing all options with City staff to seek to expedite finding a solution that can work – for the program and within City Bylaws.
“If the GNWT decides to go with a tent/temporary structure, City staff have offered vacant and available land to locate the structure, given tents on City owned land do not require development permits. If a tent is not feasible, other options are continuing to be raised and we will work with them through any relevant permitting processes.”
Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Damien Healy said the GNWT is working with its partners to find a solution before the winter months arrive.
“We are open to suggestions, not only from City Officials, but private businesses also,” he said. “We are encouraged by the social media outreach and glad that residents have the same position as the GNWT, that our most vulnerable residents require support. When a solution is found, we will communicate widely.”
Sowsun hopes city councillors put the shelter issue back on the agenda for the next city council meeting.
“The important context is that the Salvation Army closed its day shelter space, the library is closed and the Day Centre and Sobering Centre is at capacity. There are a lot of vulnerable street-involved people who won’t have anywhere to go this winter. Some of them have co-morbidities, many of them are seniors. They’re vulnerable to the flu and to Covid,” he said. “This will be a dangerous winter, more than most.”