Yellowknife sobering centre sees average of 11 visitors per night

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The new temporary sobering centre is seeing up to 21 visitors per night, the majority of them men.

Temporarily housed at the Yellowknife Community Arena, the centre has been open for nearly a month and has a deadline to close Sept. 15.

The NWT Disabilities Council manages the space, open to people who are intoxicated and need a place to sleep between the hours of 1 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Staffed by an emergency medical technician and staff from the disabilities council, the centre was set up to ease pressure on RCMP and emergency services.

Dean Ruben, 27, is originally from Inuvik and has been homeless in Yellowknife since September of last year. He refers to the centre as a “tent city.”

“I told her never to pick me up, never to bring me there,” he said, referring to Lydia Bardak, co-ordinator of the mobile street outreach program. “I don’t want to sleep in a cold tent.”

The temporary sobering centre at Yellowknife Community Arena on Franklin Avenue is furnished with two rows of tents separated by a metal and mesh waist-high fence. Each space to sleep contains a thin foam mat and tarp, a total of 28 people can stay at the centre at one time. Emelie Peacock/NNSL photo

Yet when the weather gets worse he admits he may find himself there, saying at least it’s better than RCMP cells.

“All I know is if it was winter I would go there,” he said. “It’s scary, you can get a lot of stuff when you’re homeless. I’m lucky to have a strong immune system, but other people they get sick, really really sick and some people die homeless when they’re exposed to the elements.”

Denise McKee, executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council, said the number of people using the sobering centre has been increasing as word gets out and will likely continue to rise as the weather worsens.

As of Friday, 151 people had been admitted to the centre. The busiest night saw 21 people, although on average, 11 people stay per night.

The majority are brought in by a mobile outreach van run by the Yellowknife Women’s Society, which has picked up more than 300 people since beginning in its first two weeks of operation.

Denise McKee, the NWT Disabilities Council’s executive director. NNSL file photo

“Safe ride has brought the most amount of people in,” said McKee. “We do have walk-ins and RCMP that have dropped in, but like I said the most are from safe ride.”

McKee said she was surprised to see mostly men use the centre.

“We expected like a two-third, one-third split, but it seems to be higher than that,” she said, adding there are more shelter options in the city available to women than men.

With little more than a month to find a new space for the sobering centre, the GNWT has yet to announce where it will go once the city’s sport community needs the arena again.

The work to find a space for the centre has been ongoing since 2016. In December, Health minister Glen Abernethy said the GNWT was “agressively” seeking a space downtown for the centre.

McKee was not able to say whether the NWT Disabilities Council would be running the sobering centre after September, but said the organization is well-placed to understand the often complex disabilities and trauma some of the users of the sobering centre face.