Paulie Chinna, the N.W.T.’s minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, has declared a state of emergency in Yellowknife.
“I have made the decision to enact a state of emergency in the City of Yellowknife for the purpose of addressing the emergency faced by our homeless residents,” Chinna said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
“This is an extraordinary step that our government is taking,” Chinna said, noting that it comes with support from the City of Yellowknife as well as her cabinet colleagues.
Under the state of emergency, the territorial government will acquire the mine safety building — better known as the former home of the SideDoor youth centre — and will begin to make the necessary alterations.
“The GNWT has not made this decision lightly,” Chinna said. “But timing has become significant and this offers an immediate solution.”
“As temperatures have begun to drop, the risk … is rapidly increasing.”
Temperatures dipped to –22 C in the city earlier this week and are currently in the minus teens.
The announcement comes just two days after the territory’s chief public health officer declined to intervene in the situation the city’s homeless people are facing. Dr. Kami Kandola told reporters she would not use her broad powers to enact a solution to the ongoing dispute over a location for where homeless people can congregate safely in the day.
Kandola also declined to lift the distancing restrictions at the current day shelter, which have created the need for a second space.
‘An extraordinary step’
Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green said staff at her department looked at 26 locations for alternative day shelters, including government buildings, private buildings, temporary structures and ATCO trailers.
“None of them have panned out,” Green said, either because they were unavailable or the owners were unwilling to house a day shelter.
Green said this is “an extraordinary step, make no mistake about it.”
“I personally am very pleased that this decision has been made, but I want to make sure the public understands that this is not a permanent solution. “
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty noted that Health and Social Services first proposed the location in August of this year. City council declined to approve that request, citing concerns from neighbours.
Alty said the city considered using one of its own recreation facilities, but determined the public’s need for recreation was also high.
The city was instead preparing to use some of the federal Reaching Home funds to build a temporary structure on city land, but “recognized that it wasn’t necessarily ideal.” For one thing, it would take at least a month to get ready, and the cold weather is already here.
“We are in extraordinary times,” Alty said, “and as the temperatures continue to drop we support taking steps that will protect all our residents, particularly those who are experiencing homelessness.”
Alty said the territorial government is prepared to address some of the concerns raised by nearby businesses about the use of the property, including increased external security and a “good neighbour” agreement.
“Showing how this can work effectively in our downtown will pave the way for the permanent day shelter.”
The building could be ready to open soon. One government official said it needs little renovation work or retrofits.
The SideDoor youth drop-in centre closed earlier this year, following allegations of troubled management. The pandemic arrived soon afterwards, throwing more uncertainty onto that program.