As re-entry into Yellowknife continues, work has been underway to locate and organize the return of the city’s homeless population.
The city’s latest homeless count found there were approximately 300 people identified as homeless, with approximately 100 staying in shelters each night, according to Tony Brushett, executive director of the Yellowknife Salvation Army.
When the evacuation order was issued in mid-August for everyone to leave the city, some clients left with family or friends, while others were flown to various cities, including Calgary, Brushett said.
Now that the city has reopened, the agency said there have been challenges locating people in hotels or shelters to arrange their way home.
“It’s a lot more challenging because in some cases there are people who may not have a cell phone or a working cell phone,” said Derek Pluchinski, program director for the Yellowknife Salvation Army.
“When they were dispersed from Yellowknife, they got on a plane and went to various locations. And because of privacy and confidentiality laws, etc., it is very difficult to find people or even get confirmation of their whereabouts in certain cases” .
Pluchinski said the customers he spoke with are eager to get home.
“They want to be in their family space on their land. One gentleman told me, ‘You know, I just want to go up on one of the hills and see the lakes and the trees and be home.'” he said.
“For many of them, it’s been an intimidating experience, a scary thing for them to be in a big city.”
Dave Kanayok, 39, stayed at a hotel and shelter in Calgary during the evacuation order and, although he said he didn’t mind being in the city, he was eager to get home.
“I could see my friends again… and see my cousins and my family there,” he said.
“I can’t wait to get back to Yellowknife.”
Meanwhile, Brushett said staff have been working the past few days to clean and get the facility back online.
There is also an emphasis on ensuring supports are in place for clients when they return.
“For some, I’ve heard, ‘I’ve enjoyed my vacation.’… But for those who were sent south, now they’re being sent back here again and they’re probably, in their own mind, wondering, ‘What just happened to me?’ ‘” Brushett said.
“We will make sure we have staff available to talk to them and, more importantly, listen to what their concerns are.”
Lessons learned for the youth shelter
The evacuation, while difficult at times, has provided some valuable lessons to the Home Base Youth Centre, the local youth shelter.
While some youth left Yellowknife on their own, executive director Tammy Roberts said 17 youth and one baby stayed with staff and were evacuated to Zama City, a small community in northern Alberta, an intentional move by staff.
“We know our young people and they are so attracted to the streets and they are so vulnerable that without having that control in a larger center where we wouldn’t know how to find them, support them or search for them, it would have been so stressful,” she said.
The last three weeks were filled with activities, such as swimming, arts and crafts, and time with the elders.
“It was actually a great opportunity to bond with them, for the staff and the youth to bond with each other…Having that routine and that schedule was very important for us to keep them busy,” Roberts said.
Special care is now being taken in the transition back.
“[The youth] “I really liked having people 24/7 to talk to about relationship problems they may have or challenges with family dynamics,” she said.
“We’re dedicated to trying to maintain that consistency and connection with the young people because they’re used to it.”
Wyatt Causa, 21, has been at Home Base for three years and was one of the young people in the group in the city of Zama.
Causa said he spent his time playing video games, playing pool, going for walks and using the gym.
Now that he’s back, he’s relieved to be back in familiar territory.
“I’m happy to be back overall,” he said.