Health Minister Glen Abernethy and Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green got an earful Tuesday night as the territorial government prepares to close the downtown day shelter and replace it with a sobering centre one block away.
Two dozen residents from Northern Heights Condominiums, located across the street from the Safe Harbour Day Shelter on 49 Street, showed up for Green’s constituency meeting at the Yellowknife Public Library, also attended by Abernethy.
The new shelter is scheduled to open in the coming weeks.
Complaints, concerns and frustrations about day shelters new and old, along with worries about “embarrassing” public drinking, fighting, property damage and harassment were directed at Green and Abernethy by the downtown residents.
“You’re responsible for the behaviour of these clients … Don’t think you’re not,” one frustrated attendee told Abernethy, adding she sometimes feels like sending bills for broken doors and clean-up costs to the health department.
While many people in attendance applauded the new combination day shelter and sobering centre, some said the move would simply relocate problem drinking and violence a mere block away. At the end of the day, one resident said, many of the government officials in the room go to their homes away from the downtown, leaving area residents with the sirens, shouting and violence.
“I live here, too. We all do,” replied Abernethy. “Although some of us might live a couple blocks away, we’re not blind to the challenge.”
Others questioned why the new building is situated so close to the downtown liquor store.
Abernethy admitted the location isn’t perfect, but, like the current site, he said it’s the best the government can do.
“It would be nice not to be next door to the liquor store … But it is a space we have available and we know with proper programming and great partners … We can start to make a difference in people’s lives when they’re ready,” said Abernethy.
The GNWT was rejected by 21 other landlords before the new site was secured, either because the building couldn’t be brought up to code, or because the owner simply didn’t want shelter clients in the building, he said.
The new shelter space is owned by Northern News Services.
As for the existing day shelter, Abernethy said it was the wrong choice but the only choice.
He stressed the space and design of the new day shelter and sobering centre will offer programming that the current location was never equipped for.
“This is not the same program you’ve seen across the street,” said Abernethy.
He said the new centre has the potential to be a “pathway to healing,” not just a place for people to come to warm up or sleep off their intoxication.
“Then we can help them off the streets. That’s what this new building is going to do.”
Abernethy added the current day shelter – opened in 2014 with the intention of being temporary – lasted “probably two years” longer than planned.
Addressing public safety and security concerns at the new centre, Abernethy said there will be cameras affixed to the outside of the building to monitor the premises and back alley.
A call line, the minister said, will also be established for residents to contact if they witness a problem. It’s unclear when that will happen.
In five years – when the lease on the new building expires – Abernethy said the department expects to receive federal dollars for additional programming for homeless people in the city. The site of the former RCMP building, due to be torn down, is being eyed as a potential permanent space.
In the future, the minister told residents he’s committed to exploring harm reduction initiatives, including managed alcohol programs – suggested by one condo owner – for clients with chronic addictions to address some of the persistent behavioral concerns noted by residents on Tuesday.
“I know you don’t think we were listening but we were listening,” the minister said. “We are where we are and we want to continue to hear your voices.”