Left out in the Cold: COVID-19 and Yellowknife’s homeless

Ambulance sirens sound in the cold air on 50th street in downtown Yellowknife.

Medical attention is needed for a fight that’s broken out at the sobering centre and day shelter.

But the fight for survival doesn’t end at the door.

With fewer beds available due to COVID-19 restrictions, many of city’s most vulnerable are left on the streets all day, every day.

Putting pressure on the government to open a temporary day shelter this winter despite the objections of some businesspeople.

“It was really just the opinions of a couple landlords and businesses that were operating nearby and they sent in letters,” said lawyer and advocate Nick Sowsun.

“[Among] the wider public there was no discussion. We were really upset and thought there was no justice in the process or the outcome.”

As the mercury dropped even further, the territorial housing minister declared a local state of emergency to begin retrofitting an empty building for those experiencing homelessness in the city’s downtown.

While Sowsun and Neesha Rao, interim director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, created a public advocacy group.

Temporary Day Shelter in Yellowknife. – Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN

“The current zoning application, which only invites landowners up to 30 metres to weigh in if they want a project to be approved, eliminates a lot of voices and this is a small town,” said Rao.

“It was really great to see so many people express support for there being a shelter this winter.”

The new shelter can accommodate up to 25 people and operates from 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m.

But it hasn’t stemmed demand for a warm place to sleep.

Jason Brinson, executive director of Salvation Army N.W.T., said new faces have been spotted at the shelter over the last few months.

“The biggest challenge with COVID-19 has been what do we do when our shelter is full and people come to the door,” he  said.

Sleeping pads stored in the kitchen are dragged to the church to serve as overflow beds.

Temporary Day Shelter in Yellowknife. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN

Brinson believes it’s time for the community to co-ordinate the services it offers the homeless.

“I can remember one person, in particular, that we helped,” he said. “One of his biggest concerns was the paperwork. It was a very stressful part of his journey.”

The government has put money aside for a new, permanent shelter to be constructed by 2023.

Brison, Sowsun and Rao will be there to ensure there is wide consultation before construction starts.

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