Homeless find friends after city removes public benches from favourite gathering place

Homeless find friends after city removes public benches from favourite gathering place
Nigit’sil Norbert, left, and Summer Silke bring their own chairs to protest the city’s decision to remove its benches from a favourite downtown resting place in front of the post office. City officials said they were responding to a request from developer Les Rocher, who shares ownership of the building with the Denendeh Investment Corp. Rocher said he was acting on complaints about the behaviour of some people who use the area as a hang-out.Jack Danylchuk.

City hall pulled benches from the Franklin Ave. post office last week but couldn’t push the homeless and their supporters from Yellowknife’s most popular downtown corner.

The benches disappeared Monday, and by noon Wednesday Nigit’stil Norbert and Summer Silke set out chairs and makeshift benches, making a picnic in front of the main post office that was repeated Thursday and Friday.

“I want to raise awareness of the homeless; I don’t think they should be treated this way,” said Silke, referring to the closure the week before of the Dene K’o downtown day shelter.

The shelter and the post office benches have been lightning rods in the ongoing debate over public safety and behavioural issues in the city’s downtown.

“The closure of the day shelter has clearly exacerbated the situation,” Mayor Mark Heyck told The Journal.

Last fall, the city and RCMP hosted a public meeting to hear citizen concerns about public safety and Friday, the mayor’s office announced a follow-up meeting for June 17 “to continue the conversation on community safety.”

Acting on a suggestion by councillor Niels Konge, the city cut back vegetation from the edges of the popular Frame Lake trail after several sexual assaults, but initially rejected a proposal to remove public benches from Franklin Ave.

The city removed the post office benches after a complaint from Les Rocher, a partner in the building with Denendeh Investment Ltd. (DIL), which was hotly debated on the street and on social media.

Darrell Beaulieu, president of majority owner DIL, defended the move in a press release, citing concern for public safety.

“There have been many incidents of verbal and physical abuse on the property, which will and should not be tolerated,” Beaulieu said.

Former city councillor Paul Falvo said in a Facebook entry that “removing benches is a nail in the coffin for Yellowknife’s downtown,” and invited people to join the sit-in and email their opinions to council.

Many who stopped to chat with demonstrators at the post office disagreed with the abrupt change to a favourite place to enjoy a sunny day in Yellowknife.

“I think they’re doing it the wrong way, trying to separate people, rich from poor,” said one man who identified himself only as “Jack.”

Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus said the post office “is a public place where people have always gathered.

“I think we need to talk to Mr. Rocher and the city about how we can work this out. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

Speaking as a Yellowknife resident, Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley said he was disappointed by the city’s decision to remove the benches.

“This is a message from the city that they don’t want people acting like a community,” Bromley said.

“This is the face of Yellowknife we’re talking about and I realize there are issues around addictions, but these are public gathering places.”

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  • […] One of the things this made me think about was how people who have nowhere to go can’t even just sit still for a while unless they find one of the few suitable benches or just give up and plunk themselves into a snow bank. Not everyone is on the move. Those who don’t have somewhere to go should be able to at least sit down – they already don’t have much and in the winter, they’re barely even given the opportunity to do this one simple thing that most people probably haven’t even considered unless they remove the snow themselves or traipse through it to a clear bench. In a way, it seems analogous to the City’s decision to remove benches from outside the post office. […]

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