The NWT Disabilities Council is standing behind a controversial policy that would restrict day shelter access to people with homes.
On Oct. 30, the disabilities council began informing clients and community harm reduction partners that services provided at the day shelter would soon be reserved only for people currently experiencing homelessness.
That means people who have housing but attend the shelter for food or to access other essential services like laundry or telephone and internet usage, will be turned away. Instead, they will be redirected to “other service providers,” in the community, according to the council.
“Due to the high demand of our services and limited resources, the day shelter is only able to provide support to those currently experiencing homelessness,” reads a sign from the NWT Disabilities Council affixed to the combined day shelter and sobering centre located on 50 Street.
The move triggered dismay, outrage and concern from day shelter clients and community partners alike, including the Yellowknife Women’s Society, which operates the Street Outreach van.
Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said she was blindsided by the planned policy change. As winter rears its head, Denning is concerned about the potential displacement of housed day shelter clients – who often can’t go home due to a myriad of complex reasons – and the negative consequences that could follow, from exposure deaths to homeless people getting in trouble for being on private property when they’re simply trying to get warm.
“If you have an established housing arrangement we do not have the resources to support you. We encourage you to connect directly with your other day programs and services in Yellowknife that are equipped to meet your needs,” the statement from the NWT Disabilities Council continued.
According to the council, established housing accommodations include: a private home or rental, “permanent established accommodations,” or “being housed in another community while you visit Yellowknife temporarily.”
This extends to a “connection to housing services through another community service provider, including Alison McAteer House, Lynn’s Place, Side Door, Housing First or the Bailey House,” states the notice from the NWT Disabilities Council.
Following backlash from the impending policy shift, the council released a public statement on Nov. 1, after taking a “step back” from the media. The disabilities council stated the new policy is the result of talks between the council and the NWT Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) which funds day shelter, sobering centre co-location.
From these talks, “NTHSSA and our organization made the joint decision to reaffirm the original purpose of the day shelter as a resource specifically for homeless adults in Yellowknife,” the council wrote in the Nov. 1 statement.
According to the statement, the rationale behind the new policy is three-pronged. It serves to, one: ensure the safety of staff, clients and the public; and two: it seeks to better maximize financial resources by eliminating a duplication of services, and three: it aims to focus the delivery of therapeutic and cultural programming to homeless adults accessing the facility.
The statement cites front-line observations that people who have housing, yet use the day shelter, have caused “an ongoing safety issue by using the centre without regard for rules and expectations because the follow-through with restrictions are of little consequence when they can return to their own dwelling.”
“In many instances of aggression and violence, individuals who are housed and accessing services through other agencies enter the centre and create conflict that impacts those who are truly homeless and have nowhere else to go,” reads the council’s statement.
By redirecting people who are housed back to their home and service providers, the council says it’s then able to “uphold a centre that is more manageable, comfortable and safe for people in Yellowknife who are homeless.” Without disruptions at the centre, homeless people can better access the therapy and culturally-relevant services they need, says the council.
“Those who may have housing of any kind, including independent mortgages and leases, automatically become eligible for income support and adult services to meet immediate needs of income security and well-being. When individuals who have access to these services utilize the day shelter, they deplete the only resources that are available to homeless individuals,” reads the statement from the disabilities council.
David Maguire, spokesperson for the health authority, said the department, “agrees with the intent of ensuring the services are focused on those with most need and for whom the center has been designed.”
“Our focus continues to be on the core mission of the day centre, that is to provide a warm, safe place to individuals experiencing homelessness and addiction issues” he stated.
Admission criteria for the adjoined sobering centre has not changed following the new day shelter policy, states the council.
Corina Albert, 58 has been using shelters in Yellowknife for decades.
She says she is one of many residents who uses a walker to get around, who stops by the shelter to take breaks during walks downtown. Albert is afraid she’ll be turned away from using essential services like using the washroom inside, following the policy change.
“Where do you go to? I’ll be sitting out there,” she told Yellowknifer.
Following discussions with partners, the health authority and disabilities council agreed to “pause the policy implementation” – initially set for Nov. 1 – while meetings between partners are set.
The council still plans to go ahead with the policy shift on Dec. 2, according to an email from the health authority.