It’s around 7:00 p.m., February 11, 2015, and the scent of chicken and wild rice wafts through the Salvation Army soup kitchen and men’s emergency shelter.
Some people are sitting down to dinner. Others line up at the small serving area in a corner of the room.
“It’s not bad food,” says Simon Fraser – a distant relative of the famous explorer– over a plate of it. “Food’s food, and it keeps you full.”
The Sally Ann soup kitchen is a regular evening stop for men and women in the street community. The large room feels a bit like a dorm dining hall, though less messy – perhaps closer to the kitchen and recreation hall at a YMCA summer camp. The walls are pale yellow and there are five foldout dining tables. Above the serving window are three little plaques: “Live Well,” “Laugh Often,” “Love Much.”
This evening, the atmosphere is tense. News of the weekend deaths of two people in Lutselk’e has reached the community today. With a high percentage of people here hailing from Lutselk’e, several knew the deceased.
Most people eat their dinner quietly, though several men start getting aggressive.
“I’ll go pound for pound,” growls one man getting to his feet.
“Yeah, let’s take this outside,” responds another.
Sarah Bath, a caseworker with the Salvation Army, tries to keep things calm until two police officers arrive and escort one of the men out. The heckling between two others soon turns into jokes about each other’s missing teeth.
“It’s not usually this rowdy,” Sarah tells me.
By 7:30 p.m., most people have finished eating. Several head to another room, where a group of nurses and volunteers have set up a line of chairs and buckets of warm water to wash people’s feet. A kitchen volunteer comes out to report the evening’s numbers. “Fifty-three souls served tonight.”
It’s 1:00 p.m., earlier the same day, and I’m outside the Food Rescue tent in a parking lot just off Old Airport Road. Henry Beaulieu kneels in the back of a large white van and shuffles cardboard boxes into place. The boxes and crates are marked with , SA or CNF – for the day shelter, Salvation Army and Centre for Northern Families. They have to be loaded Tetris-style into the truck so they’ll come out at the right spot during the afternoon deliveries.
This is in many ways the first link in the street community food chain. Most of the food eaten at the day shelter, Salvation Army and Centre for Northern Families comes from Food Rescue. The organization, started six years ago by Ruby and Laurin Trudel in their own home, collects food that’s close to its “best-before” date, or any that grocery stores have stocked in excess. Each morning, Henry, the organization’s only full-time employee, pops by the Co-Op and Trevor’s Independent Grocers; in the afternoons he heads to Glenn’s Independent and Shopper’s Drug Mart.
This morning’s haul has brought in a whopping 726 kg of food. And that’s a fairly light day – often they bring in 1000-1500 Kg, says Food Rescue president Karen Pryznyk.
“All the food we picked up today would have ended up in the dump,” she adds.
Food Rescue volunteer Angelo Urbancig helps load the truck
Boxes and crates filled with vegetables, juice, ham and granola bars line the walls of the long semi-circular tent. Volunteers mill around, sorting food or turning any apples, tomatoes and bananas that are on the squishy side into sauce and mash.
Not all is destined for the Salvation Army, the Day Shelter and the Centre for Northern Families; the YWCA gets a delivery once every couple of weeks, and Henry does weekly drop-offs at Mildred Hall, St. Joseph’s and Weledeh for their lunch programs.
Henry’s first stop this afternoon is the Centre for Northern Families. The parking lot is jammed with cars, so he and a volunteer have to squeeze between the cars or roll a blue, crate-stacked dolly to the bottom of the parking lot.
“Hey Henry, how’s it going?” asks one of the women in the centre.
“All good,” he says, placing several boxes in the corner of the main room. Soon, a number of women are helping ferry the boxes from the truck up a slippery ramp covered in folded-out cardboard boxes and into the centre. The food is either prepared in the centre’s kitchen – where women and children can eat, in return for a small chore like sweeping or doing dishes – or placed in food hampers that are picked up by families in need.
Our second stop is the day shelter. Again, a train of people conveys the boxes indoors and to the rear of the shelter. It’s afternoon snack time and there are chips, veggies, sushi, tea and coffee on the table, all from a Food Rescue delivery two days before.
“You got any pineapple?” one man asks the shelter’s team leader Katelyn Gibbons, who sorts the boxes of food in her office.
“Surprisingly, fruit is pretty popular,” Katelyn tells me.
When the shelter reopened in September, the plan was to serve a light afternoon snack, starting at 1:00 p.m.. It’s since grown into a full-on meal, and Katelyn says people are starting to skip lunch at the Salvation Army and come straight to the shelter. Fighting hunger in the street community has become one of their biggest priorities, she says.
Between the Sally Ann and the day shelter, there’s usually plenty of food. But that doesn’t mean people don’t go hungry. “If you’re only surviving on food from these places, it’s hard to stay full. And if you can’t get into the building, you can’t get the meal,” she says.
This is echoed in a conversation I have later with Lydia Bardak of the John Howard Society: “There’s lots of food available, but not everyone can get themselves to where they need to be. We need to be more flexible.” She suggests bag lunches might be a good idea, so people can eat when they want to.
Lining up for an evening snack at the Sally Ann
After the day shelter, Henry drives over to the Salvation Army for his final stop. The food is taken to the kitchen on the second floor next to the upstairs dining room for the Salvation Army’s full-time residents.
“Busy day?” asks a man in the elevator.
“Everyday is busy with Jesus,” Henry replies.
There’s still a bit of food left over from the delivery, so Henry calls a single dad he knows who lives just across the street. He’s raising his daughter by himself and with the cost of living in Yellowknife as high as it is, he’s having trouble putting food on the table, Henry tells me.
This situation is not unique in Yellowknife. Nor is it only the street community that has to worry about food security. The Yellowknife Food Bank gives food hampers to between 50 and 100 families every second Saturday, says Grant Pryznyk, who was president of the food bank from 2011 to June of last year. And there’s a wide demographic that uses the service: around 10 percent are youth and around 10 percent are seniors, says Pryznyk.
There are also numerous single moms who use the food bank, though their food situation can be even more challenging, says Barb Needham, a volunteer with the charity St. Vincent de Paul, which delivers food hampers and vouchers on-call.
“There are a phenomenal number of young single women, who live in a very restricted situation,” she says. “They can’t just load their kids in the toboggan and pull them to the food bank; it’s too cold. There’s no bus that takes them out to the food bank and renting a taxi can be too expensive.”
It’s equally, if not more, dire for low-income families in N’Dilo and Dettah, Henry tells me. After he finishes his daily shift, he takes leftover Food Rescue boxes to struggling families in those communities. He lives in Dettah. In both communities, the ban on caribou hunting is taking its toll, he says, especially on elders who aren’t used to eating store-bought meat.
In helping fill empty bellies, he has a friend in Muriel Betsina, Chief Ernest Betsina’s mother. She’s trying to start a soup kitchen in N’Dilo and has reached out to Det’on Cho for financial support. She already makes extra soup for friends who are having a hard time, on top of feeding three or four hungry community members who come by her house every day.
“I can name 10 young guys [in N’Dilo] that are homeless and they can’t eat from someone else all the time,” she says.
Lydia Bardak arrives at the post office just after 6:00 p.m. that evening. She and a group of four Citizen Response Team volunteers have two backpacks full of granola bars, hand warmers and first aid kits. There are around ten people in the post office. Lydia seems to know everyone, and they welcome her warmly.
In one corner, a man sits on the ground holding letters and his I.D cards in his hands.
“Do you have an inside pocket for those?” Lydia asks, as she crouches beside him.
He’s quite intoxicated and in a pretty rough state. He’s from Lutselk’e and is related to one of the people who died on the weekend, Lydia tells me. A couple of the community members bring him a sympathy card while he’s sitting in the corner. One man is being aggressive towards him, and Lydia has to pull the man aside for a stern explanation of the Lutselk’e situation.
“I try to be here to help defuse these tense situations,” she tells me. She and her group do the rounds of the street community’s popular haunts – the post office, the mall, the library – once or twice a week, to calm conflict and help get people to the Sally Ann for dinner.
She’s clearly well-loved and trusted by many people in the community, who often air their grievances to her. One man starts complaining about people who get into the Salvation Army’s permanent residences, claiming they’re jumping the queue.
The apartments are for people who want to quit drinking, Lydia explains.
“Are you ready to stop drinking?” she asks.
“I’m ready any time,” he replies.
“What’s the longest you went without drinking?”
“Go on!” she says with gentle incredulity. “Did you like it? What would it take to get you to stop?
“I dunno, a good woman. You know how to make bannock and tan a moose hide?” he asks with a wink. Both of them burst into laughter.
The Post Office clears out just before 7:00 as people head towards the Sally Ann. A few people hang back, but Lydia convinces three of them to head down to the soup kitchen and walks with them down Franklin Avenue.
Dinner at Sally Ann finishes just before 7:45 p.m., and people file out into the alley beside the shelter. During the 15-minute turnaround in which the soup kitchen is transformed into the men’s emergency centre, the floors are mopped and tables are folded away.
Salvation Army patrons wait for the emergency men’s shelter to re-open after dinner
The men are allowed to come back in at 8:00, though several of the more intoxicated are asked to take a half hour walk then try again. As people drift back in, they sign in with Sarah, the residential care worker, and choose their own bunk. One man has a water bottle and Sarah sniffs it, searching for the scent of alcohol.
There are two rooms with eight bunks each, as well as Room 101, where intoxicated people sleep on blue gym mats. There’s also space for people to sleep in the cleared-dining area. All told, the shelter can accommodate 40 people, though they’ve been known to sneak in an extra two or three on cold nights.
Those bound for Room 101 are sent to bed immediately. Everyone else can stay up and do what they please until 11:00 p.m.
“Most have not been given the opportunity to be treated like adults, so we try our best to treat them like adults,” says Sarah.
The mood is much calmer than over dinner – most of the men sit around quietly watching a Discovery Channel reality show about gold mining. Others play cards, backgammon and chess. A man with a mustache, hoody and thick painter’s pants talks on the pay phone.
Real Lebelle gets ready to bed down for the night at the Sally Ann
The communal evening scene at the shelter reminds Gilles Amyot, who has been living in the shelter for several years, of his time touring with Cirque de Soleil and other American circuses as a stagehand.
“If you enjoy the show everyone puts on, it’s okay,” he says. “And I like the community. If you don’t have a community sense, you’re lonely as a stone.”
Around 8:30, the first of the blue gym mats come out into the main area. When I leave at around 9:00 p.m., people are lining up for an evening snack of blueberry and apple Danishes.
Part One: Frozen Out: Homeless at Sub-Zero
Part Two: Frozen Foods: Hungry at Sub-Zero
Part Three: Surviving the Past: Mental Health on the Street