While the GNWT has been attempting to put regulations in place to keep the public safe, probably one of the greatest failures has been providing safe spaces for the homeless.
When this government first took office, one of its top priorities was providing housing for those on the streets. Yet for reasons we still do not understand, the Arnica Inn was initially allowed to slip through our fingers because of oversights at the highest level of government.
Thankfully, last minute actions taken by the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the owner of the hotel, who agreed to give the Yellowknife Women’s Society a grace period before they have to start making mortgage payments, means that the project could come to fruition if someone willing to insure the inn can be found. Once that happens, it will provide critical spaces during this time of pandemic outbreak to the homeless. However, at this present moment it remains closed.
In addition to that, the sobering centre shut its doors to all but 30 residents so that they could self-isolate thus keeping themselves and the community safe. People who have been tested for Covid-19 and are required to isolate are housed at the Aspen Apartments until they clear the required 14-day period.
While this is helpful, there are still many homeless people who have no permanent residence. Some can sleep at the Salvation Army or the Women’s Centre overnight, but once those centres are full, they have nowhere to go. Plus, as it currently stands, they need to stay outside for an hour before a GNWT-run day shelter near the Salvation Army opens in the morning. That shelter was closed for several days last week after a fight occurred. Other traditional gathering places like the A&W or the library are closed. They have nowhere.
And then there are the people who work at the shelters, truly on the front lines and frightened. This is not fair to them.
In addition, currently the GNWT-run shelter can only accommodate 30 people compared to the 60 at the previous day shelter. This means that if the centre is full, the street outreach van can only call the ambulance or RCMP to take intoxicated people to the drunk tank or the hospital. If the ambulance is called in, they must take clients to the hospital where staff are already on high alert preparing for an outbreak we all pray will not happen.
Why this is so important is that one of the greatest fears of all large centres is that the virus will be found in someone on the street and once there, has the real potential to infect everyone else from the community. The first person from Vancouver’s east side testing positive was identified only last week – that city’s worst nightmare come true. We cannot allow that to happen here. It is why it is so crucial for the city’s street population to have proper accommodation day and night.
As unfortunate as this is, those in Yellowknife who do not have a place to go and congregate on downtown streets are often treated like animals by the general public – fearful of the risk they pose. On cold mornings, people still going to work have had to ask groups of them to clear doorways so they could enter their offices. In one instance, one of them spit at a security guard. This would be offensive under normal conditions and actually, in court, spitting is considered a particularly serious form of assault precisely because of the potential to transmit disease and infection. But during this time of the pandemic, it could be deadly.
Finally, transit drivers have had to turn them away because of their using buses as warming centres. This puts other transit users and the drivers who already put themselves at risk in this line of duty in vulnerable situations.
The GNWT needs to step up to the plate on this matter and work with both the Women’s Centre, the Disability Council and the Salvation Army to ensure that the homeless population in Yellowknife and those with compromising lifestyles have places to be where both they and the public are safe.
Helping this population was supposed to be a priority of this government as outlined in its early plans. That has not happened but needs to be done now. It is nothing short of tragic to see how they are literally left in the cold during this challenging time.
This is the third pandemic in 20 years and we have been warned that more are to come as we continue with this unsustainable lifestyle. Finding more permanent solutions for the homeless is crucial if we want to avoid widespread contamination in the future. It would be a gift we give them and ourselves.
Postscript: How we treat the “least among” us is not a reflection on them; it is a reflection on us.