A renewed move is underway in Hay River to create an emergency homeless shelter for men – a so-called wet shelter for potentially intoxicated males.
And it has been triggered by a changing policy of the RCMP.
At a public meeting on Jan. 14, Sgt. Tyler Codling, commanding officer of the RCMP’s Hay River detachment, said the police will soon no longer lodge intoxicated homeless people in cells for the night.
“Part of the urgency here is going to be the RCMP option is an expiring option,” said Codling, explaining the force’s national leadership is concerned because the RCMP is not equipped to help homeless people and is taking on liability by allowing them into cells.
Codling said the order has already started to trickle down from leadership.
“They will draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No more,'” he said. “Anybody who stays in cells may be charged criminally and go to court. If they’re not able to meet that criteria, they’re not going into our cells. That’s not an immediate thing but it is coming.”
Codling said there needs to be something in place in the community before that happens.
Jill Taylor, a member of the Hay River Interagency Group, called the meeting at NWT Centennial Library, and afterward explained it was prompted by the coming move by the RCMP.
Taylor said a homeless shelter for men had previously been discussed by groups such as the Hay River Committee for Persons with Disabilities, the Hay River Ministerial Association and the Interagency Group.
“Now it’s kind of come to a head because the RCMP are facing some issues where they no longer are going to be able to house (the homeless),” she said.
Taylor would like to see some kind of shelter for homeless men set up this winter.
“We just think as a community we can do better,” she said.
Over the past couple of years, the Hay River Committee for Persons with Disabilities has been working on a two-bed day shelter and it is now ready for use.
“We’d like to see a proper facility that’s available throughout the evening with proper staffing,” said Pravina Bartlett, the committee’s executive director.
The 25 people at the Jan. 14 meeting provided various perspectives on how best to create a men’s homeless shelter.
Taylor told the representatives of various organizations that one of them is needed to take the lead on the project, and be responsible for funding, payroll and audits once a shelter is created.
She said the bottom line is Hay River can do better than having homeless people in police cells, adding that Fort Smith and Yellowknife have shelters for men.
“What are we going to do right now to get this off the ground so we’re not sitting here in a year’s time hashing out the same problems that we know exist?” she asked. “We know we have many who need help.”
Some people volunteered to gather information about shelters in other communities, such as the one run by Salt River First Nation in Fort Smith.
Joletta Larocque, the South Slave director with the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, suggested a needs assessment would determine the scope of the problem, such as how many men are homeless and whether the homeless population is made up predominantly of men.
Father Don Flumerfelt of Our Lady of Assumption Roman Catholic Church said a men’s shelter was ready to go in Old Town in the mid-1990s but was prevented by NIMBYism – the “not in my backyard” syndrome.
Hay River already has a women’s shelter.
Flumerfelt said homeless people regularly seek refuge at his church.
“The guys will say, ‘Well, if I do something stupid, I’ll get arrested and I’ll get thrown in the clink for a night,'” he said, calling this a common thought among homeless people.
Const. Steve Beck of the RCMP advised those at the meeting that it would be best to find an existing building for a shelter.
“Keep it simple,” he said, explaining that means identifying the current need. “Which is making sure people are not freezing to death at night.”
— Paul Bickford