Why the west side’s only men’s shelter closed on snowy Boxing Day
On the evening of Boxing Day December 26, 2016, as the snow fell, along with the temperature, the 25-bed St. Mark’s extreme weather shelter in Kitsilano—the only emergency shelter that accepts men on the entire Westside of Vancouver—kept its doors locked.
The 10-or-so homeless men who had slept at St. Mark’s on the nights of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were surprised on the evening of Boxing Day, after trudging through the snow and cold to Larch Street and West 2nd Avenue, to be met by a locked door bearing a sign explaining that the shelter was closed because it wasn’t cold enough.
My emails to St. Mark’s have so far gone unanswered but I’m told by homeless people that the sign taped to the locked door of the extreme weather shelter on the evening of Boxing Day, gave as an excuse for the closure, the fact that the temperature wasn’t expected to fall to -2° C!
B.C.’s Extreme Weather Response is extremely relative
Extreme weather shelters like St. Mark’s are part of a province-wide Extreme Weather Response program, and only exist to add shelter beds when the weather poses a potential health and safety risk to homeless people, such as when it’s snowing and/or the temperature falls below freezing.
As the St. Mark’s website puts it, when an ‘extreme weather alert’ is called, St. Mark’s is one of the shelters around the region that open their doors overnight to add much-needed temporary shelter beds because…
“When the temperatures plummet and the snow flies, or the slush is deep, or the wind is gale force and cold, life can be especially hard for those who live rough.”
There’s no denying that on the day after Christmas the temperature plummeted—from a “high” of 3° Celsius to a low of less than –1°—and that the snow was flying and the slush was indeed deep.
However, some unnamed bureaucrat in Vancouver decided that falling snow and -1° Celsius were not extreme enough to open the city’s extreme weather shelters.
According to B.C. Housing, which created and funds the extreme weather response (EWR) program, the actual decision to open the EWR shelters is left to the discretion of regional officials.
In reply to my question about the St. Mark’s Boxing Day closure, an email from B.C. Housing stated that:
“Community representatives cancelled the alert on December 26th that resulted in the closing of Vancouver’s extreme weather shelters including St. Mark’s.
BC Housing does not issue or cancel extreme weather alerts.
Community representatives decide when to issue an alert and how many spaces to activate on any given night.”
Basically, B.C. Housing is passing the buck, saying that it’s not responsible for running the extreme weather response program, it just pays for it. However it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The fact is, B.C. Housing created its province-wide extreme weather response program without creating a province-wide definition of extreme weather.
The exact definition of extreme weather that will trigger the extreme weather alert needed to open the extreme weather shelters (not to mention B.C. Housing’s wallet, to fund the costs) is left up to the various communities participating in the extreme weather response program.
Therefore Greater Victoria and the North Shore (among other B.C. communities) will declare an extreme weather alert and open extra shelter beds when the temperature is at or below -1° C. but Vancouver and Comox Valley won’t.
The City of Vancouver is one of the few large B.C. communities that does not list it’s current extreme weather protocol publicly on the web but it still appears to be the case (as it was back in 2009) that Vancouver does not consider anything above -2° C. to be extreme enough to warrant opening its extreme weather shelters.
Actually, I should emphasize that the extreme weather shelters can probably be opened whenever the shelter operators want to open them, provided the shelter operators are willing to pay the costs.
B.C. Housing will pay the costs associated with opening the extreme weather shelters only after a community coordinator has declared an extreme weather alert in accordance with the community’s extreme weather protocol, on file in Victoria.
So, to recap: The St. Mark’s shelter closed on Boxing Day because an arbitrary and rigid definition of extreme weather meant that it could not get provincial funding to open. And the arbitrary definition of extreme weather that was missed by less than a degree was probably set by some Vancouver bureaucrat who wasn’t themselves going to be caught dead outside.
Which is ironic, when you consider that one of the stated goals of the Extreme Weather Response program is to keep homeless people from bring caught dead outside.
Where B.C.’s EWR program is not meeting it’s own goals for success
B.C. Housing’s extreme weather response program (EWR) was established during the winter of 2003-2004 and had a stated overall purpose to: “protect homeless people in the Lower Mainland from contracting a critical illness, becoming hypothermic or dying due to exposure to extreme winter weather”, according to the EWR evaluation report for 2003-2004.
The 2003-2004 evaluation report listed three indicators of success:
- EWR plans would be implemented as the weather required in a safe and effective manner.
- Homeless people in EWR communities requiring shelter would receive it during extreme weather.
- Information about extreme weather alerts would circulate quickly and effectively; which is to say that homeless people would know when there is an alert and what resources are available.
As far as I’m concerned the Boxing Day closure of St. Mark’s fails to meet all of the above indicators of success.
The service was not implemented in a safe an effective manner. A group of homeless people who were trying to rely on this shelter (for lack of any other choice) did not receive the shelter that they required. And no advance notion of the closure was given. The homeless people hoping to sleep at the St. Mark’s shelter had no way of knowing other than physically going to the shelter, in order to find out if it was open or closed.
I would strongly argue that everything about the closure of the St. Marks shelter (and apparently every other extreme weather shelter in Vancouver) on Boxing Day actually put homeless people at more physical risk—not less.
Focusing not so much on homelessness as downtown homelessness
To my mind, the inability to keep St. Mark’s open on Boxing Day, given the complete lack of alternative shelter beds in Kitsilano and Fairview, is indicative of the larger ongoing failure of social services to address homelessness outside of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula—with relatively few shelter beds and little or no outreach services—beyond the occasional (not unwelcome) visit of a United Gospel Mission truck handing out baloney sandwiches, Tang, socks and underwear.
Apparently there just aren’t enough of us homeless people on the south side of False Creek to be much cared about.
To further belabour the point, consider the December 28th announcement from B.C. Housing that three of Vancouver’s existing extreme weather shelters would receive funding to stay open seven-days-a-week right through January and that a fourth shelter would be added to provide 20 new women-only beds, thus adding a total of 124 shelter beds to the city’s 950 permanent shelter beds.
Never mind that ongoing sub-zero temperatures in January would likely have caused those three extreme weather shelters to be open for at least some of January 2017—this was a welcome announcement.
The fact that homeless people can at least be certain of three more emergency shelters being open every night of January is a good thing.
However, it has to be said that none of the three extreme weather shelters to receive the extra funding happens to be St Mark’s and all four of the shelters are in the downtown core.
Thus, all the homeless people in the other 21 neighbourhoods of Vancouver, who choose to stay away from the downtown for their own safety and/or sanity, or whatever reason, are once again getting less than the short end of the stick; they are getting nothing at all.