Yellowknife city council approved a contentious option to construct a temporary day shelter on one of four city properties during a special council meeting on Thursday.
A tender for the work could go out as early as this week, according to city SAO Sheila Bassi-Kellett. She said contractors would have a week to bid.
Last Friday, the city’s Community Advisory Board learned that it received additional funding of $1.469,258 from the federal Reaching Home – Canada’s Strategy to End Homelessness funding related to Covid-19. The city has $181,650 left over from an earlier grant of $500,000 that must be spent before the new money can be used.
In favour of the motion were Mayor Rebecca Alty and councillors Julian Morse, Steve Payne, and Robin Williams.
Only Coun. Shauna Morgan opposed the motion.
Councillors Niels Konge and Rommel Silverio recused themselves from the vote due to conflict of interest concerns.
Coun. Stacie Smith was absent and attending a personal matter.
Coun. Cynthia Mufandaedza’s feed on the web livestreaming meeting lost connection before her vote was cast but she was in support of the motion.
44 Street building
The proposal to construct a temporary shelter comes at the same time that the GNWT is in the process of seeking development approval for another contentious location – a federal public works warehouse building at 5009-44 Street.
The Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Health and Social Services is to make a presentation on this option at the Nov. 3 governance and priorities committee meeting and will be voted on for final approval at the Nov. 9 regular council meeting.
The city is looking at four options for location – the parking area or grassy area on the south portion of Somba K’e Park, the fieldhouse’s southern parking lot, the asphalt area immediately adjacent to Niven Tennis Courts, and the grassy area at Fritz Theil Park adjacent to Franklin Avenue.
The SAO said going with a temporary structure is a “plan B” to the GNWT proposal and would avoid the potential for an appeal by a neighbour of a permanent building selected to house a shelter. That process could delay the opening of such a shelter by up to three months, she added.
Bassi-Kellett stated more than once that based on the city’s zoning bylaw, the city would not have to seek a development permit and therefore be able to avoid any appeal or bureaucratic obstacles to constructing a shelter.
“Based on the responses so far,” she said of the 44 Street, “we are very confident there will be an appeal.”
Bassi-Kellett said city staff are “under duress” at this time of season with preparing for budget 2021 and also working on other files like planning for reopening of facilities and working on aquatic centre.
Staff have been working at “warp speed” in drafting request for proposal documents since Friday’s funding announcement.
She couldn’t say when a temporary structure could be available for users.
“We are trying to be very deliberately broad in our RFP so that we can seek creative solutions,” she said. she added a popular Sprung Structure, for example, could take six to eight weeks to arrive from the seller.
“We are not experts on this and we are looking to find a creative contractor and our project management community that has knowledge to present many different options to this – and help determine an ideal location.”
Some councillors had mixed reactions to the issue.
Coun. Julian Morse said he was uncomfortable of being forced to make a decision and said he would have liked to have seen the city-owned Mine Rescue Building back for a vote, which council nixed in August.
“It doesn’t change the fact we are where we are and I made the decision based on the information before me and the quickest but not the best case,” he said.
Advocates split on temporary structure
Advocates for the homeless and welfare of street-involved people were strongly at odds over the development for the proposal during Thursday’s meeting.
Neesha Rao, interim executive director with the Yellowknife Women’s Society started out the meeting as one witness who was highly skeptical of the temporary structure idea because she does not believe that council has enough information to make a decision.
She was also critical that a decision on how to help people without access to adequate shelter has been left to when the weather is seeing below-zero temperatures.
Rao and Nick Sowsun, founder of the Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown Facebook page both advocated for the 44 Street location because of its proximity to the downtown.
“I don’t think we have evidence that the approach recommended will lead to a faster (solution) than if council was supposed to address on Monday,” she said of the federal warehouse. She added that it “could be up and running in November.”
Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council, was in strong support of the temporary structure and against the 44 Street option due to a whole list of reasons including that it is in close proximity to the young people who attend Sir John Franklin School.
She said if council supports the federal building it will almost certainly be appealed and delay finding an immediate solution.
“If you don’t think there will be opposition to location for a day shelter across the street from a high school that is also connected to elementary school, I think that it is extremely (optimistic),” she said.
Among those in opposition to the development near the school is the Yellowknife Catholic School Board, as demonstrated by a letter apparently sent to councillors Thursday morning, the contents of which a YCSB representative refused to disclose to a reporter.