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Quarantined Sobering Centre and Day Shelter bringing positive results, says operator, neighbour


April Desjarlais is “amazed” by some of the positive changes she’s seen downtown following the NWT Disabilities Council’s decision to quarantine some 30 homeless clients for 30 days amid Covid-19.

“It’s a testament to the community’s need for a facility, a proper facility, where these programs can occur,” says April Desjarlais, a neighbour to the Sobering Centre, where a transformation in the program has occurred due to Covid-19.
NNSL file photo

“They feel like they were given a chance. They feel so much healthier. I definitely have seen a positive change,” said Desjarlais, whose building sits next to the Sobering Centre and Day Shelter on 50 Street in Yellowknife.

Following the centre’s opening in fall 2018, Desjarlais has been outspoken about violence and public disturbances she’s witnessed in the area. She has documented incidents of assault captured by her building’s security cameras around the shelter, while pushing for a good neighbours agreement between area businesses and agencies from the City of Yellowknife to the RCMP.

That partnership has since been formed, and local business owners, along with representatives from the city, law enforcement and the NWT Disabilities Council, meet monthly. The latest meeting was held on April 16.

Earlier this month, the NWT Disabilities Council, which runs the Sobering Centre and Day Shelter, moved to lock down the facility in an effort to protect high-risk homeless people, many of whom have underlying health conditions, from the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Individuals who signed up for the month-long quarantine are being provided alcohol and tobacco through a managed program — something that community advocates in the capital have long called for.

Desjarlais’ observations echo statements recently made by the council. Quarantined clients are drinking less, abstaining from hard drugs and coordinating housing arrangements while feeling better than ever, according to the NWT Disabilities Council.

Records show clients who were drinking daily up to eight bottles of malt liquor -- commonly known as Private Stock -- or other alcoholic beverages are now down to one bottle or none.

“Supervised distribution of alcohol has successfully supported the adults in our program to significantly reduce their alcohol consumption,” reads a statement from the council. “Although not a requirement of the program, over half of the adults in our program identified that they are using this isolation environment as an opportunity to become more sober and healthy,” continues the statement.

Denise McKee, the council’s executive director, said the agency has witnessed many benefits that weren’t necessarily foreseen. The original plan was to protect at-risk people from Covid-19. Now, workers are being told that clients are feeling healthier than ever before — and that they want the centre to continue its current measures until the pandemic is controlled.

“Our service users have identified that there is no interest in the centre returning to a
drop-in setting until the pandemic situation changes,” stated the news release from NWT Disabilities Council.

According to the statement, an on-site medic continues to support clients regularly at the sobering centre and day shelter. The medic’s duties, however, have evolved during Covid-19 — clients are regularly being screened for symptoms, along with drug withdrawals.

Positives need to continue post-pandemic: neighbour

Desjarlais recently spoke with clients at the shelter from afar; across a fence that limits their exposure outside of the centre. All appeared healthier than what she’s used to during her regular encounters with them, she said.

“It was like night and day,” said Desjarlais, who applauded efforts from the NWT Disabilities Council and the health authority, which provides funding to the council.

Encouraged by the shift, Desjarlais said the progress needs to stick. It can’t disappear post-pandemic, she said.

“It’s a testament to the community’s need for a facility, a proper facility, where these programs can occur,” she said.

Desjarlais wants to see the controlled alcohol program continue, but she’d like to see clients served at a different facility that can meet the demands, and the volume, of the city’s homeless population.

On the operator’s end, McKee said the NWT Disabilities Council is looking at the model and its outcomes to “provide significant insight into developing effective strategies toward successful supports,” down the line.

Here are some statistics, offered by the NWT Disabilities Council, that provide more insight: 

Photo courtesy of NWT Disabilities Council.