GUEST COMMENT: Don’t just throw up your hands and walk away

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I feel that I must respond to your editorial from March 29 entitled “If no shelter, then what?” As landlords of Yellowknife’s combined Day Shelter and Sobering Centre, I can appreciate that you are in a tough position when it comes to discussing the Day Shelter’s negative impacts on its neighbours.

April Desjarlais, owner of the Finn Hansen building next door to the Yellowknife day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street.
April Desjarlais is owner of the Finn Hansen building next door to the Yellowknife day shelter and sobering centre on 50 Street.

But as one of those impacted neighbours, I would like to request that you try harder to look for solutions rather than simply throwing your hands up and accepting what is happening right in front of us in our community.The dual-purpose facility was intended to provide a safe environment for Yellowknife’s homeless population and promises were made that this could be done without unduly impacting neighbours.

There comes a time when the parties involved need to evaluate whether those goals are being met, and if they are not, to change direction and try something else. For me, that time came when I began reviewing footage captured by the security cameras that we had no choice but to install. The situation is completely out of control, and it won’t be solved by just tweaking the current model.

YKHSS designed a facility that did not include 24-hour security and was not supposed to be negatively impacted by its proximity to a liquor store (literally forty feet away). It does not work. Rather than providing safe shelter from the elements during the day when the other local shelters are closed, the day shelter has become a seating area and gathering spot for a wild outdoor saloon in the heart of our downtown. Rather than reducing harm it is facilitating a never-ending cycle of binge drinking, public intoxication and violence.

And rather than serving our city’s homeless, it serves people both homeless and housed, local and from across the territory. How else can you explain the fact that in 2018 the City of Yellowknife counted 234 homeless adults in Yellowknife, but now there are nearly 700 unique users of the Day Shelter documented at the end of February 2019.

One thing I’m sure the day shelter has accomplished is to take a problem that was dispersed and concentrated it into one area. But this is not an accomplishment that I feel should be celebrated. It reminds me too much of the past approaches by the federal government to dealing with Indigenous people. It is self-serving and merely hides the problems associated with alcoholism and homelessness from view. And in this particular case, it has not merely hidden those problems, it has enabled and increased them.

Although the day shelter side of the dual-purpose facility has gone well astray from its intended purpose, the Sobering Centre side seems to be doing somewhat better. It was intended to provide safe overnight shelter for homeless people who cannot access other shelters, usually due to excessive drinking; as far as I can tell it is doing so successfully and I completely agree that this is a necessary service.

I also agree that people should be free to leave such a facility when they choose to – they are not prisoners. But when they leave, if they find themselves in the middle of a block party the moment they leave the doors of the centre with a liquor store only forty feet away, what chance do they have of ever improving their lives? In your editorial you posed the rhetorical question “how close is too close?” There is no need for that question to be rhetorical. It just strikes me as unhelpful to leave it without an answer.

With the Ruth Inch Pool nearing the end of its useful life, and the mini-golf facility having closed down years ago, maybe that whole area needs to be considered for health services, or perhaps it should be home to a new liquor store. If not there, what about the land behind CBC? Maybe the new day shelter should be a dry shelter.

Maybe the Minister of Justice needs to be reminded that the consumption of liquor in public is still a crime in the NWT. Maybe the City should create a “good neighbour” bylaw to make sure shelters, bars and the liquor store are responsible for their patrons’ actions. Maybe Yellowknife simply can’t have a day shelter because of all the problems associated with them, but can instead have extra overnight beds? These are all important parts of a conversation that does not seem to be taking place, but desperately needs to.

When I presented to city council two weeks ago, Mayor Rebecca Alty described this situation as a “wicked problem.” I absolutely agree. But the way to solve wicked problems is not to simply throw our hands up and walk away and accept the situation in our downtown as something we should all turn a blind eye too, as your editorial seems to suggest.

It is to collectively roll up our sleeves and get to work on finding innovative solutions. The challenges that we face in our community as it relates to our most vulnerable population does have roots deeper than we can imagine and I hope that the GNWT “powers that be” will come to the table with the degree of seriousness that this situation calls for.

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