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Premier recounts hunt for homeless during Yellowknife evacuation

Caroline Cochrane was a social worker before politics
Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane listens during a news conference after a meeting of Western Premiers in Whistler, B.C. on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. Cochrane was a social worker before entering politics, so when the territory’s capital ordered everyone to leave last week due to encroaching wildfires, she said she checked to make sure homeless people weren’t forgotten. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane was a social worker before entering politics, so when the territory ordered everyone in its capital to leave last week due to encroaching wildfires, she said she checked to make sure homeless people weren’t forgotten.

“My heart’s with those people. I’ve worked in that field for over 20 years,” Cochrane told an online news conference about the firefighting efforts over the weekend, when she was asked about government plans to keep in touch with Yellowknife’s homeless.

Cochrane, who is among the nearly 70 per cent of N.W.T. residents forced to flee the fire threat, responded that the government worked closely with shelters in the city of about 20,000 to make sure people were being brought to the evacuation centre.

But she said she knew that many of the most vulnerable people — in fact, most of them — don’t use the shelter all of the time.

“On Thursday morning, I drove to the shelter — the women’s shelter at that time because I know a lot of them because of my past — and I realized that there were some that were still on the street.”

“From Thursday morning, from 8 in the morning until after midnight — the whole day — I recruited one of the homeless men and we drove through Yellowknife, over and over, to every single place, trying to find people.”

“We were going into places I normally would not go, behind buildings, into bushes.”

Cochrane said she wanted to give a shout-out to the man from the Sahtu region. By midnight, she said, they’d managed to find about a dozen people and get them to an evacuation centre.

“I’m hopeful that not only the ones that were in the shelter at the time, that … the vast majority that were on the streets have now been evacuated.”

Fire information officer Mike Westwick said Sunday that a special effort was undertaken to ensure Yellowknife’s homeless population was safe.

“There was significant outreach to people experiencing homelessness,” Westwick said. “There was good success getting them set up with supports in Alberta.”

Jennifer Young of the territory’s Emergency Management Organization said homeless evacuees have been registered in the centres where they arrive, and that various mental health and addictions supports, as well as social workers, are being made available to them.

RCMP Cpl. Matt Halstead said based on their observations, as well discussions with other officials, it is believed that “the vast majority, if not all of our shelter users and underhoused have made it to evacuation centres.”

On Thursday, Ed Fraser was with dozens of others from the city’s homeless shelters waiting in a long line at Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin high school to leave the city.

On Sunday, Fraser, who is 50 and is dealing with a dislocated shoulder, said he was being lodged with other evacuees at an airport hotel in Calgary.

“At least we have a roof over our head,” he said. “And we’ve got food vouchers.”

But he said many of his companions smoke and there’s no money for cigarettes. And he said it’s $6 to wash and dry their clothes.

A 2021 point-in-time count found 312 people were experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife, more than half of whom were chronically homeless. Indigenous people accounted for nearly 92 per cent of those experiencing homelessness compared to 23 per cent of the city’s total population.

In May, Cochrane tabled a long-awaited plan to support people experiencing homelessness in the N.W.T. and prevent others from becoming homeless.

She said at the time that she understands the challenges facing both people experiencing homelessness and front-line workers. She said she was a “street kid” sleeping on people’s couches at the age of 13 and worked as a social worker for 20 years before entering politics.

“People always say that we need to support homeless people, but homeless people support us as well,” she said on the weekend when speaking about the man who helped her tour the city last week.

“He became one of my good friends.”

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