More than two months after the SideDoor’s youth drop-in centre in Yellowknife closed its doors, a question mark still looms over when it will reopen, and what it will look like when it does.
The downtown drop-in centre, called the Resource Centre, has been locked since at least March 6, when signs were seen in the windows saying it was closed until further notice. Days later, allegations of mismanagement and mistreatment at the non-profit emerged. Young people and current and former staff called for an audit of the non-profit’s finances, and for the executive director, Iris Notley, to resign.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Events were cancelled and businesses shuttered. On April 10, all indoor gatherings were banned. Throughout, the young people who rely on SideDoor for meals, for adults in whom to confide, and for connecting with friends, were left without that safe space.
Notley, who remains at SideDoor’s helm, says the pandemic forced the Resource Centre to stay closed and reopening has always been the plan.
When that will happen, though, and where, is uncertain.
SideDoor’s lease with the city, which owns the Resource Centre building, ended April 30, and Notley says she doesn’t yet know whether it will be extended.
The city said others have expressed interest in the property, so it has put out a request for proposals. A city spokesperson said it will choose a tenant that best meets the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.
But Notley suggests that when the Resource Centre does start up again, it may not welcome the broad spectrum of young people it once did.
“About 95 per cent of the youth that accessed the Resource Centre were housed,” said Notley.
“Our program is based on preventing, reducing and ending youth homelessness, and so what the Resource Centre was providing was somewhere to go during the day, but there’s other places to go during the day, including going home.”
She said the Resource Centre is meant for young people experiencing homelessness who need assistance getting housed.
‘I went to SideDoor every day’
SideDoor, a Christian non-profit, has operated in Yellowknife for 25 years. The organization runs the Resource Centre on 50th Street, as well as Hope’s Haven, an emergency shelter and transitional home for young people ages 15 to 19. It also helps young people with independent housing off-site.
Before it closed, SideDoor’s Resource Centre offered free meals, help with resumes, access to computers and counselling, and more.
To Kiersten Milnes, SideDoor staff were like parental stand-ins.
“I went to SideDoor every day, like every day, just to talk to the staff,” said Milnes, who is 22 and has been a SideDoor regular since her early teens. “They’ve experienced it and it’s just good to talk to people who might have had similar experiences as you.”
Milnes is a single mother and until recently, lived in SideDoor housing. Since the Resource Centre closed, she’s mostly been alone with her two-year-old.
“You have good days and bad days. It’s hard,” she said.
CBC spoke to a former SideDoor staff member who said they were fired after news broke in March of trouble at the organization. The former employee, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their current employment, said they’re in touch with several young people in SideDoor programs.
“I know there’s like a lot more substance use just because they don’t have anywhere to go and nothing to do except sit around and use substances,” they said.
Some are also breaking public health orders to see friends because “that’s their support network,” said the former staff member. “We can’t talk to them anymore so that’s where they go.”
Future of youth Resource Centre uncertain
The former employee worries that when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the youth Resource Centre will reopen not in its former two-storey, pink-and-blue home, but in a much smaller space in Hope’s Haven.
Indeed, a February 25 SideDoor meeting agenda obtained by CBC lists as an item “consolidating Resource Centre and Hope’s Haven.”
But Notley rejected this theory. She said in February she was presenting the options should SideDoor not be able to renew its lease.
“In February it looked different. It looked like I was trying to shut down the Resource Centre, when in actuality, I’m trying to save it,” said Notley.
She said SideDoor’s intent has always been to have a place for young people to go that is separate from Hope’s Haven.
Kirk Tastad, co-chair of SideDoor’s board, was no clearer about SideDoor’s future.
I went to SideDoor every day, like every day, just to talk to the staff.– Kiersten Milnes, former SideDoor client
“Due to current gathering restrictions the Resource Centre remains closed. This will continue to be evaluated going forward,” he wrote in a May 6 email.
Asked about the investigation into allegations of mismanagement at SideDoor, Tastad said “several important steps have been taken,” but that “the current COVID-19 crisis has delayed aspects of this process.” He said the board won’t comment until “this process” is complete.
Notley declined to speak about the allegations, saying the investigation was ongoing.
COVID-19 a ‘real eye-opener’
The pandemic was a “real eye-opener” for SideDoor as far as how it serves young people, said Notley.
“COVID[-19] did really make us aware of some things that we were doing to enable youth,” she said. “[The pandemic] really highlighted that dependence on us, and we really had to step back.”
“We wanted youth to have more autonomy as opposed to being dependent on the organization.”
For one thing, said Notley, when the Resource Centre closed and SideDoor stopped offering three meals a day, they realized young people weren’t budgeting properly, because they hadn’t needed to before.
Now, she said, SideDoor is delivering “emergency food hampers” to those who need them with ingredients and recipes inside.
She said SideDoor will focus on “youth who need the support as opposed to youth who have alternatives.” She added that the organization will be launching new programs related to high school completion and housing, in celebration of its 25th anniversary this month.
The former SideDoor employee said it’s true that the majority of young people who used the Resource Centre were housed, but that most of them were housed at Hope’s Haven or through other SideDoor programs, and benefited from the extra support.
“The Resource Centre offered so many important services for youth,” they said, including “a place to just get away when you can’t always be at home.”
A new organization for young people
Milnes and other young people who used SideDoor haven’t been discouraged by uncertainties at the non-profit. If anything, they’ve been motivated.
They’re starting a new organization, said Milnes, called Building Northern Futures, and they recently finished some of the initial paperwork.
“We are doing the same thing as SideDoor kind of. We just want to be a new youth centre,” she said.
The former SideDoor employee is helping out, too. They said Building Northern Futures wants to create a Resource Centre-like space that would be open to all young people.
“Youth with disabilities, homeless youth, it’s just kind of [for] all youth.”