Emergency vehicles respond to an incident at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter in May 2022. Letters from some members of the business community and the mayor express mounting frustration over activities outside 405 Alexander St. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Emergency vehicles respond to an incident at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter in May 2022. Letters from some members of the business community and the mayor express mounting frustration over activities outside 405 Alexander St. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Fear, frustration mounting over alleged criminal activity outside Whitehorse shelter

Advocates say the alternative is worse. Letters call for all involved to solve problems

Some frustrated business people in Whitehorse’s downtown core have signed a letter to the premier expressing overwhelming frustration over the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.

The letter, which is attributed to a handful of businesses and organizations located in the downtown area around the shelter and multiple city blocks away from it, describes what amounts to, in some cases, alleged criminal activity.

“What is happening at the shelter is totally unacceptable and is out of control,” reads the letter.

“Businesses and properties are dealing with horrendous behaviour. Staff are being sexually, verbally and physically harassed. Property is being destroyed and damaged.”

The letter, which was provided to media by the Yukon Party, was sent May 25 by email directly to Premier Ranj Pillai and carbon copied to other representatives in the territorial and municipal governments, RCMP and opposition party leaders as well as Connective, which operates the shelter, and the Council of Yukon First Nations, which is a subcontractor.

The Yukon government handed over shelter management and operations to Connective and the Council of Yukon First Nations on Oct. 1, 2022.

READ MORE: CYFN Grand Chief set on refocusing Whitehorse shelter

In a July 11 email, Sgt. Dustin Grant, Whitehorse RCMP acting detachment commander, said police responded to 4,036 calls for service in the downtown core from Oct. 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023. That includes 433 calls directly to the shelter, which makes up 10.7 per cent of all calls in the downtown core. Grant’s email indicates that the proportion of downtown calls coming from 405 Alexander St. has remained fairly consistent, typically representing between nine and 11 per cent of all calls in the downtown core. That does not include calls to the surrounding area or calls that are associated with the shelter but not directly involving the street address. Grant did not indicate the types of calls.

“We are continuing our enhanced patrols, including on foot and on bikes, as a way to increase visibility and interact with folks in a more personal way outside of vehicle patrols,” Grant said.

“We are also aware that police are only one part of the solution to the issues presented, and Whitehorse RCMP leadership has met and continues to meet regularly with 405 Alexander St. management to address concern and how we can be one part of this solution.”

Grant said the call rate generally goes up in the summer and there are no indications that trend will change for this summer or location.

The letter considers the situation a community problem that requires everyone involved to find a solution. It concludes that there is “no choice left” but to relocate the shelter away from the nearby elementary school, daycare and businesses.

“With each changing political organization running [the shelter], it has gotten worse,” reads the letter.

“Where do we go from here? There has been meeting after meeting. Letter after letter sent to your government. And still, no plan to help anyone affected. It’s time to make a plan and implement it. Changes have to be made.”

Mayor calls on health minister to step up

A June 16 letter from Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott to Health and Social Service Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee was also provided to media by the Yukon Party. The letter draws attention to “a matter of great concern to our community, that being the activities that occur outside 405 Alexander St.”

The mayor indicates “rarely a week goes by” without complaints from residents and businesses about adverse impacts of the activities taking place on the sidewalks, roads, alleys and adjacent private property around the shelter. In addition to safety concerns, Cabott said local businesses have seen a 30 per cent decrease in business, which they attribute to this situation.

“I wish to be very clear that the City of Whitehorse is a trauma-informed organization. I also wish to be clear that we recognize the activities occurring outside 405 Alexander St. represent a very complex situation rooted in deeply long-standing societal issues. Additionally, I wish to recognize that a solution to the situation requires a whole community response,” Cabott wrote.

“That having been said, this situation has been going on for years now, with little apparent improvement.”

While Cabott reconfirmed the city’s desire to be part of solving the problem, she implores McPhee to seriously consider “every and all options available to you to fully address the situation.”

In a June 29 release, the Yukon Party is urging the territorial Liberal government to “respond and act on serious issues,” citing various reports from business owners, the city and the public about the “state of disarray” outside the shelter.

“Since the government took over operations at 405 Alexander St., operating costs have ballooned, while outcomes have gotten worse for residents and businesses,” reads the release.

“Neighbours have been telling the Liberals for over four years about how they witness violence, sexual activity and open substance use. Proprietors say clients of the shelter harass customers and the public in general to the point where business has dropped dramatically due to the overall concern for public safety in the area.”

In the release, which draws on two reports done for the government, Brad Cathers, the Official Opposition’s health and social services critic, notes that some of the clients the shelter is intended to help are experiencing harm because of the way it is being operated.

“A path forward needs to improve community safety, help vulnerable people instead of actually increasing substance use and the risk of them being victims of violence, and ensure that downtown businesses and residents can feel safe again,” he said.

Advocates say alternative is worse

The vice-president of strategy for Connective responded to the letter from businesses in a July 11 interview.

“We’re very grateful that the members of the community are taking the time to highlight the complex issues that are faced by some of the people who use our shelter and who face housing instability,” Liz Vick said.

Vick suggested the Yukon needs an “expanded continuum of housing and expanded social services” given the needs of people with complex challenges can be diverse.

“While we’re able to support some of those folks adequately at the shelter, we really see this as an opportunity to offer more unique services and more types of housing and shelter that could serve more people better,” she said.

“We know that communities that don’t have a shelter fare worse. And so, while no one service can meet everybody’s needs, we feel that by diversifying services and adding to the housing continuum will meet the needs.”

Vick said the shelter provides services beyond an emergency shelter. Connective supports the decentralization of services, she said.

“We do know that these concerns have been longstanding and predate us operating it. And we also know that there are countless numbers of people who’ve had a positive experience and benefited from accessing the shelter because it’s in a central location and because people are able to access it, and that’s our priority right now,” she said.

“We’re certainly willing to engage in discussion around the location of the shelter, but we’re really focusing on using the resources at our disposal to support the people who have needs right now.”

Kate Mechan is the executive director of Safe at Home Society, a non-government organization that aims to end homelessness and works with many of the individuals who use the shelter. She said relocating the shelter and its programs is “unrealistic and will actually have a detrimental impact.”

“Displacing individuals who are already in crisis is rarely an effective tool,” Mechan said.

Mechan said the conversation needs to shift away from emergency shelter to permanent, affordable, supportive housing.

“I would almost put money on the fact that if we housed people, we will alleviate a huge amount of pressure on any shelter.”

Mechan said the shelter is trying to do too many things for too many people in one space.

“Because we have a lack of housing across the board, people are trapped in the shelter system,” she said.

“People aren’t going to the shelter for a 24-hour or 48-hour emergency stay. They are having to use the shelter because they do not have the housing that they need, so they are staying there for incredible lengths of time.”

While she sees and hears the frustration coming from the business community, she doesn’t want to see people who are homeless and with low and middle incomes being vilified and discriminated against when they are ultimately experiencing violence and trauma.

Mechan hopes the “spirit and intent” of Safe at Home Society’s plan to end and prevent homelessness is taken up as part of working together towards solutions.

“It doesn’t need to be ‘us and them.’ It doesn’t need to be divisive,” she said.

“We need to do it with thought and with compassion.”

READ MORE: Yukon Health and Social Services struggles to make problems disappear at shelter

Contact Dana Hatherly at dana.hatherly@yukon-news.com