In response to widespread concern, the minister of Health and Social Services is vowing a short-term action plan for the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.
“Over the past several months I have met with the city, local businesses and residents and we all agree that the current situation at the Whitehorse Shelter is unacceptable,” Pauline Frost said in a letter she addressed to Yukoners and posted to social media
Public dissatisfaction and complaints of excessive loitering outside the shelter came to light last Monday at city council.
Residents and business owners spoke out objecting to the city’s proposed beautification project on Alexander Street.
Several speakers at the meeting described a worsening situation at the shelter, and feared the installation of street furniture would foster more issues.
“I don’t want to encourage people to sit around and loiter,” Joyce Mickey, who owns a home on Alexander Street, said at the council meeting. “I am exhausted from the behaviour.”
Hans Oettli, the longtime owner of Duffy’s Pets, told the Star this morning he estimates a loss of thirty-five per cent of his revenue to the worsening state of Alexander Street.
“People are afraid to come,” Oettli said. “We have comments from customers that they get abused outside, they get spit at, one woman got a bottle thrown at her car. It’s unbelievable.
“This has become the epicentre of our drug and alcohol problem in Whitehorse.”
Oettli observed that the people outside the shelter seem consistently intoxicated. He believes two or three of the social groups hanging out there “don’t get along” and repeatedly fight in the street.
Earlier reporting by the Star heard residents similarly complain of public drinking and violence. One local said he has seen people publicly having sex and defecating on the block surrounding the shelter.
Many say an offsales liquor outlet nearby is worsening the behavioural problems outside the shelter.
Mayor Dan Curtis conceded last week the issue is “challenging,” and said he receives multiple complaints a week from anxious residents.
“We don’t really have the ability to address it individually as a council as far as resource and mandate,” Curtis said.
City council members said they were encouraging Frost’s department to address the dilemma.
Less than a week later, the minister posted her proposed multi-part action plan to Facebook.
In the statement, Frost proposed an expanded Block Watch patrol presence operated by the RCMP, the Department of Justice and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation.
She added that exploration of a Community Safety Officer Program is underway to “ensure issues around risky behaviour and loitering can be addressed in an appropriate and sustainable way.”
Secondarily, Frost proposed designing an outdoor space for guests that will be out of the way of entrances to local businesses.
Third, Frost said she is working with the Department of Community Services to co-ordinate the station of a full-time EMS worker at the shelter.
She promised an announcement confirming this by the end of summer. The intention of a stationed EMS worker is to reduce the number of non-essential visits to Whitehorse General Hospital’s emergency ward.
Fourth, the statement suggested that new shelter rules would begin providing meals to “guests only” and closing the doors to non-shelter guests at 9 p.m.
As for internal operations, Frost said her department is working on increasing programming and community engagement activities for shelter guests, and working with Income Support Services to support individuals returning to their home communities.
“Our vision, which I know many of you share, is that the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter becomes a place that is welcome by all and helps all members of the community thrive,” Frost said.
“We are not there yet, but we are all partners in getting there.”
Frost promised that public consultation with residents, Yukon First Nations, city council, the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce and non-profit organizations would be paramount in moving forward.
“I want to thank you for your ongoing patience and compassion,” Frost said.
“Please know that we are working with urgency to address your concerns and the complex issue of poverty and homelessness in our territory.”
Oettli said he has been in talks with Frost and believes her action plan is a solid step forward.
“I think she’s on the right track; some of the ideas are good because she can see the problem,” he said. “It just needs to be sped up tremendously.”
The Star’s request to the Whitehorse RCMP for comment on their perspectives on the worsening problems was redirected to Frost’s department.