Opinion Social Policy

Yellowknife is in the midst of an undeniable homelessness crisis

I was picking up sushi on Franklin Avenue with my girlfriend a few Saturdays ago when we noticed a commotion happening across the street. There were about a dozen street people passing around bottles of Smirnoff in the parking lot of the Centre Square Mall. It was around 5:30 p.m. – a half hour after the day centre closes its doors and another hour and a half until the Salvation Army opens up. With nowhere else to go, everyone seemed to be enjoying the unusually warm weather except for one man who kept falling over in a heap and vomiting on himself. My girlfriend and I watched on as parked cars pulled out of the parking lot and a small parade of bystanders walked past and averted their eyes. One of the homeless people tried to help the man up, but despite their best efforts he kept collapsing. It was clear the man needed medical attention. With no one else on the street bothering to help, my girlfriend, who works at the Safe Harbour Day Centre and recognized the client, called EMS, and left the restaurant to check on him.

By the time I made my way down the stairs, two EMS vehicles had shown up (as people in a nearby car had also called) as well as an RCMP cruiser. The cops dispersed the crowd and patted down the street person who had been assisting the individual in distress, who was now slumped against a wall being attended to by four firefighters. While the exact reason for the mans distress was unclear, there was a strong smell of mouthwash coming off him, suggesting that he had been consuming an over-the-counter product all too common among those looking for a cheap alternative to booze. From what I saw, the situation was handled extremely well by RCMP and firefighters and by the time we left, the man had been put on a stretcher and hooked up to an oxygen mask inside the ambulance.

Leaving people to drink themselves to death on the streets has become the status quo for the self-proclaimed diamond capital of the world.

As I walked away from the scene I was disturbed by what I had seen, not because it was an unfamiliar sight. Rather I was shocked by the fact that leaving people to drink themselves to death on the streets has become the status quo for the self-proclaimed diamond capital of the world.

I have expressed a great interest in reporting on what is happening in the street community in Yellowknife ever since I moved here three years ago. During my two years working for the Yellowknifer, I wrote about the closing and opening of shelters, the deaths of some of its beloved members, as well as threepart series aimed at providing solutions to ending homelessness in Yellowknife, which sadly seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Since finishing at the paper, I have begun undertaking a long-term photography project about the homeless community and have been spending a great deal of time getting to know the people living on our streets. When I took this photo I had no intention of sharing it. But given the extent to which indifferent or miscalculated policies have been exposed over the months, I decided that I couldnt keep my thoughts to myself anymore. This is an issue that people in Yellowknife and across the territory need to confront.

At the heart of the problem is the GNWT and the city, both of whom are willing to accept only the most minimal of responsibility when it comes to solving homelessness. For years, the city has time and again insisted that homelessness is a GNWT problem. That is until it received a bit of federal funding to develop a Housing First strategy. Unfortunately, as Mark Rendell pointed out last week in an article for EDGE, the city and the GNWT are at loggerheads on how that money should be spent, with the city pushing forward with its plan to house people in private apartments around the city while the GNWT focuses on putting them in semi-independent apartments and Yellowknife shelters. Even more troubling is the fact that Caroline Cochrane, the newly appointed Minister Responsible for Addressing Homelessness and former director of the Centre for Northern Families, points out in the same article that housing people in private apartments without some form of care or supervision is a recipe for disaster.

Anyone who has taken the time to talk to street people would know that the extent of the problem goes far beyond the nickel-and-diming the territorial and municipal governments are masquerading as solutions.

Even if we were to give the municipal and territorial governments a sarcastic round of applause for pitys sake, the fact remains the neither of them seems to understand the magnitude of the problem. That, of course, shouldnt be surprising; I doubt any politician, with the notable exception of Cochrane, has done anything other than walk past the citys day shelter since they were elected, despite the fact that some of its clients – as you will find out, if you talk to them – bothered to tick a box on the ballot last fall. Anyone who has taken the time to talk to street people would know that the extent of the problem goes far beyond the nickel-and-diming the territorial and municipal governments are masquerading as solutions. If by chance some politicians have been mysteriously spending time down at the shelters and not talking about it, then shame on them for failing to convey the magnitude of the problem to the public.

Lets not kid ourselves. This is an issue of significant magnitude. Even if we were to consider the conservative estimate generated by the citys haphazard point in time count from last summer as accurate, the citys street population – which I would define as any one that uses the citys emergency shelters on a regular basis – consists of at least 150 people. If that number doesnt startle you, then perhaps you should consider that it equates to a ratio of one homeless person for every 128 people in the general population. Add in the fact that many of these people struggle with alcohol addiction, severe emotional and physical trauma, and mental health issues, and its fair to say you have a crisis on your hands.

EMS personnel attend to a homeless person in distress in downtown Yellowknife.

EMS personnel attend to a homeless person in distress in downtown Yellowknife. Credit: Cody Punter

As if governments inaction wasnt bad enough, it is sadly only the tip of the iceberg. Yellowknife RCMP have responded to the governments malaise by taking their own indifferent stance. They have implemented an official policy of no longer responding to calls related to public drunkenness, a fact Yellowknifer reporter Shane Magee exposed in a story based on internal RCMP emails obtained through an access to information request. On the one hand Im actually tempted to side with the RCMP. It shouldnt be the polices job to house homeless people. But then I remind myself that because the RCMP has stopped picking up drunk people, we have put a greater strain on our already thinly stretched emergency service workers and frontline shelter workers.

Last week, Dennis Marchiori, the city’s director of public safety, sent me an email in which he told me that the Yellowknife Fire Department (YKFD) has seen a dramatic increase in call volume since the RCMP stopped responding to individuals being drunk in public. While Marchiori rightly pointed out that not every EMS call is related to a street person, nor is every call for a person drunk in public, anyone who has spent any amount of time downtown in the last month could provide sufficient anecdotal evidence to realize there is a relationship between the two. On that score, Marchiori conceded the city does have people who utilize the ambulance service frequently during the winter months,adding somewhat diplomatically that the YKFD does not know if they are either intoxicated or homeless.

Meanwhile, Dusty Sauder, who runs the Salvation Army with his wife, told me the mens emergency shelter has seen the number of users gradually increasing in recent years, during which it has been operating far over capacity. As of last year, the shelter was providing an average of 38.6 people a bed every night. The capacity is supposed to be 24. Because there is nowhere else for them to go, the Salvation Army has also bent its normally strict rules on alcohol consumption in order to ensure that people arent left to sleep outside at -40C. Sauder told me he would rather be housing street people in the shelter than seeing them go to the drunk tank. But as a result of its goodwill, the Salvation Army is in desperate need of financial and administrative relief for the sake of both its staff and its clients.

The continuous passing of the buck has created a domino effect and placed an unfair and, in some cases, unsafe amount of pressure on people who work the hardest for the least amount of money to help the homeless. If the situation in Yellowknife should not be considered a crisis, then I dont know what should.

If the municipal and territorial governments want to tackle this crisis they are going to have to accept that band-aid solutions will not stop the bleeding.

What politicians cant seem to get their heads around is that the shelter is supposed to be a last line of defence – a place where people who have fallen on hard times can get a warm bed, a meal, and somewhere to go to the bathroom. Instead they have become the de facto home for dozens of men and women, many of whom have been staying there on a regular basis for several years.

If the municipal and territorial governments want to tackle this crisis they are going to have to accept that band-aid solutions will not stop the bleeding. It will require a lot of money and a lot of political will to make a dent. Handing out apartments willy nilly to a handful of people will not pass muster; $300,000 a year from the federal government wont cut it.

For starters, there needs to a significant capital investment. Something on the scale of Whitehorses new $21-million treatment centre, but geared specifically to getting people off the streets, will be needed. Ideally this should be some form of Housing First facility where the most vulnerable people in the city could be housed. These facilities have had proven successes across North America, including in Fairbanks, Alaska where a $9-million, 47-person Housing First unit was purchased several years ago. The government needs to realize that the most vulnerable street people are unlikely to be able to live independently due to their addictions and mental health issues. If we could get even 20 of those people off the street, it would make a huge difference.

Secondly, the territorial government and the city need to find a way to support both a wet and a dry shelter. One of the greatest struggles faced by people trying to get sober is the fact that there is only one place that will accommodate them during the day, and it has a policy of admitting people who have been drinking. The Salvation Army is supposed to provide a sober environment, but by shifting the responsibility for housing all the citys homeless men onto the shelter, the Sally Anne has had to become all-inclusive, for better or worse.

The fact that the Salvation Army is willing to put its religious ideology aside in order to pick up the slack and prevent street people from freezing to death is nothing short of admirable and should be commended. But by not providing a separate shelter for people trying to get sober, it essentially throws those who are trying to help themselves to the wolves. (If you want an idea of what that might cost, its worth considering the NWT Disabilities Council was awarded a two-year, $619,000 contract in 2014 to run the current day shelter.)

Finally, the GNWT needs to reach out to communities and figure out why so many of their people are ending up on Yellowknifes streets. A large number of street people come from communities where alcohol is either forbidden or restricted. Not only does this create a dangerous and lucrative black market for bootleggers, but it also gives an incentive for people to come to Yellowknife where booze is comparatively cheap and easy to get a hold of. Another important fact worth pointing out is that approximately 30 per cent of people using the shelter are Inuit, with many of those coming from Nunavut. By comparison, according to a study conducted by the former shelter operator, the John Howard Society, only 14 per cent of shelter users are from Yellowknife.

I imagine this is consistent with homeless populations in regional centres across Canada. People who end up on the streets tend to come from smaller, more isolated communities with a lack of services and employment opportunities. Under Canadian law you cannot force anyone to move somewhere against their will. However, if the GNWT could sit down and open up a dialogue with Indigenous governments, law enforcement agencies, and health professionals in the communities which contribute to a large percentage of Yellowknifes homeless population, perhaps it could come up with some innovative ways of keeping people off the streets in the first place.

Instead of flying up consultants from Vancouver and Toronto to tell you how to build trails or parking lots, consider flying up some experts from communities that have had success in getting people off the streets.

Surely, the question that people will be asking themselves is: what about the money? $21 million doesnt just grow on trees. Of course it doesnt, but if we are going to take this crisis seriously then we will have to find a way to come up with some money. Get the GNWT to petition the federal government, which has allocated an unprecedented amount of money to help remote Indigenous communities in its current budget. Take some of the $300 million for a new hospital and reallocate it toward a facility for homeless people. Maybe get rid of a few communications positions while youre at it.

As for the city, every year administration comes forward with an extraordinary budget with no qualms about proclaiming that it will cost taxpayers millions. But somehow, year after year, city councillors have managed to put their heads together and wipe out the dreaded tax hike. Instead of flying up consultants from Vancouver and Toronto to tell you how to build trails or parking lots, consider flying up some experts from communities that have had success in getting people off the streets. Or instead of proposing $570,000 for a fantastical splash park in a city that is surrounded by lakes, including one that is now attended, the city should consider putting up $500,000 toward supporting another day shelter so that families with children dont feel afraid to bring them downtown. The city already has $300,000 a year from the federal government until 2019. With some creative accounting it could surely come up with more.

The city can argue it shouldnt have to spend more than its federal handout to solve homelessness because most of the street people come from other communities and are therefore the GNWTs responsibility. At the same time, the city’s coffers are being stuffed with millions from Japanese and Chinese tourists flocking to the capital to see the Northern Lights, while mining companies continue to house their head offices in Yellowknife for no other reason than the fact that it happens to be surrounded by diamond deposits. There are benefits and responsibilities that come with being a naturally wealthy member of one of 13 territorial and provincial capitals in Canada, and the city can’t have one at the expense of the other.

Not a week goes by where I dont hear a business owner, a parent, or a government employee lament the mess in the streets or the apparent threat they feel walking within a one block radius of Centre Square Mall. While some of their perceptions may be blown out of proportion, there is no doubt they have legitimate grievances. By failing to address Yellowknifes homelessness crisis, city councillors and MLAs arent just ignoring the street community; they are also ignoring cries of their constituents and the few people that are willing to stick their neck out to make a difference.

Photos: Cody Punter

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