A bunch of Whitehorse’s homeless used to sit on Patrick Singh’s back stoop “drinking and fighting.
“People have even been murdered back there,” said the co-owner of Mark and Paddy’s Wondrous Music Emporium.
But since the Salvation Army opened its day lounge on December 24, things are slowly starting to change for businesses in the area.
Singh walks through a back room and unbolts a door opening onto the infamous stoop.
“Look, there’s even blood in the snow,” he said, pointing at a dark red stain on the hard-packed white alley. “Or maybe it’s wine,” he said.
Thursday evening, the one-room lounge felt a little bipolar.
At the far end of the room, on the peaceful side, four guys were stretched out on couches, one using his woolly headband to keep the light out of his eyes. Lord of the Rings’ Two Towers was playing on TV.
Between the couches and the coffee pot, which sits by the door, was a table holding a homemade chocolate ring and some peanuts. This was neutral ground, with a couple guys talking, munching and flipping through magazines. One of two lounge supervisors, Brian Allaby was sitting at the table, his back to the couches and his eye on the door.
It gets pretty raucous between the table and the door, which opens and closes continually. Mostly it’s Leonard, a tall, rough character with a green toque that keeps jumping off his head.
It’s when he stumbles onto neutral ground, that things heat up. Dennis Roy, tall and skinny with a dirty cowboy hat and no fingers, continues talking a-mile-a-minute in an upper-crust accent about saboteurs, embezzlement, extortion and “Mason, Shriner, Jesuit, Commie, Socialist scumbags.”
But he gets louder when Leonard teeters toward him. Both men want to be in the spotlight, and Allaby, in a quiet warning tone, tells them to keep it down.
“This is a wonderful place, especially in this weather,” said Roy, after Leonard wandered back out the door.
“Before, when we went places, people called us bums and homeless.
“And there’s free coffee.”
Roy doesn’t want to talk about the flat, discoloured stumps he has for hands.
The fingers “went black, died and had to be sawed off,” he said. Then, he’s back to ranting about “pathological, retaliatory racketeering.”
There are always two staff at the lounge, which sees an average of 20 people a day. Opening at 3 p.m., when the Salvation Army shelter closes, it stays open until 8 p.m., just before the shelter reopens.
“Last year at this time it was 46 below—I know because I was outside for two days on these streets,” said a clean-shaven man who refused to give his name. For the last 15 years he’s been living on and off at the shelter.
“I grew up in a group home run by a notorious sex abuser,” he said. “So I’m doomed to live on the streets the rest of my life.”
The idea of opening a lounge has been on the back burner at the Salvation Army for years, said Ryan Anderson, who helps cook at the shelter.
The space was there, it was just a matter of getting funding.
This year, the shelter managed to pull together $28,000 through federal and territorial funding to help cover staff salaries. The four-month pilot project will until April.
The lounge has only a few basic rules: no swearing, no smoking and no alcohol inside.
“It lets our clients come in out of the cold and warm up and have coffee,” said lounge supervisor Marilyn Kendi, who was playing solitaire and keeping an eye on the room.
A woman in a black Yukon parka with silver bracelets and rings sat at a small table near the door bent over a page that was covered in pencil doodles, drawing.
Leonard, back inside, was leaning into another man threatening him with his “dragon hand.” Allaby called his name, firmly, and Leonard eased up. Gollum was snivelling for his Precious on TV.
“If there’s a lot of alcohol, things get out of control,” said Kendi. “But if nothing’s around, everyone gets along good.”
When things get out of control, staff call the cops, said Allaby. “But in the last couple days, we haven’t had to call at all.”
Speaking of making calls, the lounge needs a public phone, said Singh.
Although he’s got fewer people on his stoop now, Singh still sees plenty of lounge regulars who come into his music shop to borrow the phone.
“We let them use it,” he said.
“But when they’re reeking of alcohol and Listerine, you don’t really want all that shit on your phone.
“I’m really happy the lounge opened,” added Singh.
“We need to provide this kind of service. I hope they do something for youth next.”
A few minutes later, Leonard was spotted walking out of Singh’s shop. He must have needed to make phone call, or maybe he just wanted to talk.
“At least with this place there’s less chance of finding a dead body down by the river,” said Allaby.
Contact Genesee Keevil at