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Lack of communication leaves unhoused Victorians out in the snow, despite open warming centre

The city opened a warming centre Monday night after constant snowfall, but the city’s unhoused say they were not informed about its availability

By Brishti Basu
November 9, 2022
Weather
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Lack of communication leaves unhoused Victorians out in the snow, despite open warming centre

The city opened a warming centre Monday night after constant snowfall, but the city’s unhoused say they were not informed about its availability

By Brishti Basu
Nov 9, 2022
Gerry Mcleod slept under a piece of plastic on the concrete after unsuccessfully looking for a place to sleep indoors. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Gerry Mcleod slept under a piece of plastic on the concrete after unsuccessfully looking for a place to sleep indoors. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Weather
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Lack of communication leaves unhoused Victorians out in the snow, despite open warming centre

The city opened a warming centre Monday night after constant snowfall, but the city’s unhoused say they were not informed about its availability

By Brishti Basu
November 9, 2022
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Lack of communication leaves unhoused Victorians out in the snow, despite open warming centre
Gerry Mcleod slept under a piece of plastic on the concrete after unsuccessfully looking for a place to sleep indoors. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

Late Monday night, as the snow began sticking to the streets of Victoria after an afternoon of near constant snowfall, the City of Victoria finally decided to open up emergency spaces for homeless people to find warmth.

It wasn’t until 10:46pm on Monday night that the city began sharing the news on social media that there would be a warming centre open overnight at James Bay United Church on Michigan Street. 

According to Tanya Patterson, emergency program coordinator for the city, staff members knocked on tents and sent emails to shelters Monday night, letting them know that the Extreme Weather Response (EWR) plan had been activated.

Still, not a single person showed up at the church. This is because, according to unhoused people and their advocates, they didn’t know it was open. 

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“I didn’t hear from any officials that there was a warming centre open,” said Millie Modeste, an advocate for homeless people in Victoria, who said she spent the night trying to find shelter spaces and gathering items like blankets and tents to distribute. “I find it hard to believe because nobody knew about it, I’ll tell you that.”

Monday night and Tuesday morning were “brutal” for people who had to spend the night outside as all existing shelters were full. The Gonzales weather station recorded the lowest temperature on record for Nov. 7 on Monday night, at -1 C, with winds gusting up to 50km/h. According to Modeste, there were around 20 tents along Pandora Avenue alone, full of people struggling to stay warm. 

“They battled all night to keep their tarps on,” she said. “I heard people wailing and crying because they were just so done. The wind was so brutal, nobody could stay warm.”

Before hunkering down on the street for the night, people did everything they could to find an indoor shelter space. 

Gerry Mcleod was one of those who tried and failed to find a bed or a mat anywhere, and settled down on the sidewalk to begin his fight against the bitter winds. He, too, did not know there was a warming centre opened overnight, about a 20-minute walk away. 

“I slept under a piece of plastic on the concrete,” Mcleod told Capital Daily. “[I was] trying to hold down a tent [but] shook all night. Tried to keep warm with a candle, [but] caught my hand on fire.”

The warming centre at James Bay United Church also had 30 mats available for people to sleep on. In addition to this, the EWR enabled the opening of 20 more spaces at Rock Bay Landing. According to Patterson, 15 additional unhoused people were able to be accommodated at the latter facility because of the EWR. 

In a statement to Capital Daily, BC Housing said they are working on opening 30 more emergency beds, and a new 25-bed temporary shelter in Victoria. “These shelters will open once non-profit operators have hired enough skilled staff to support operations,” reads the statement.

The spaces are sorely needed, according to Modeste. 

“Every shelter was full with a 10-plus waitlist. Most of them filled up by 10am,” Modeste said. “There are more than 70 [shelter] beds short in this city.”

Tents on Pandora Avenue on Nov. 7. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

Who’s in charge?

In the past, the EWR, funded by BC Housing, has been coordinated by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. This year, the executive director of the coalition, Sylvia Ceacero, says that role has been left to the City of Victoria.

A spokesperson for BC Housing told Capital Daily that the reason there is no EWR coordinator this year is because the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness did not send a funding proposal to hire someone for the role.

Even without a coordinator, BC Housing said the “system worked as intended”—the city and shelter providers did activate the EWR, and the main challenge on Monday, according to him, was the unforeseen continuation of snowy, stormy weather.

“The city now has the oversight of ensuring that there are warming centres and so on for the population,” Ceacero told Capital Daily. 

Ceacero got the email that the EWR was being activated at 10:25pm on Monday night, but notes that the coalition does not monitor its emails 24/7. She woke up to the message on Tuesday morning.

“I am here telling you that we will do much better in the future to ensure that we are supporting the city in what it needs to do,” she said.

The city’s emergency program coordinator told Capital Daily they would normally have activated the weather response plan much sooner, at 11am, but were caught off guard by incorrect forecasts on Monday. 

“Yesterday, the temperatures were forecast to remain above freezing and no accumulated snow…which is why we didn't activate right away at 11am, which we normally would,” Patterson said. “But then we saw the weather was actually worse than forecast…It was a bit of a scramble just when the snow started to stick and it turned out worse than forecast.”

According to Patterson, emergency shelter and warming spaces overnight are opened when temperatures drop to 0 C or below, or if there is an accumulation of snowfall, sleet or freezing rain, high winds, or “anything outside that criteria that's posing a risk for the life, health, and safety of residents.”

During the day, the threshold for opening extra shelter spaces is higher: either temperatures drop to -4 C or lower, or a combination of 0 C temperature and a weather warning. 

Last year, Victoria was reimbursed for funding both daytime and overnight EWR spaces by Emergency Management BC, but is now looking to enter an agreement with BC Housing to fund overnight emergency spaces which EMBC said they will no longer reimburse. This change in funding will be the subject of a council discussion at their Committee of the Whole Meeting on Thursday.

According to Patterson, the biggest challenge with the EWR is finding people to staff the facilities on an emergency basis. 

This staff shortage is not new and began with the pandemic, she said. Capital Daily reported on this burgeoning crisis last winter, as shelter operators had to decline requests to open extra mats and beds during extreme weather conditions because they did not have the manpower to do so. 

The extra 30 emergency beds that BC Housing said they are working on opening are located at the Salvation Army Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre. Patterson said these spaces will be ready next week, as the operator works on hiring and training new staff this week. 

Ceacero also pointed out the dire need for more people to staff homeless shelters.

“Currently the Salvation Army and the Victoria Native Friendship Centre are looking for folks to staff their shelters and we ask that you do an appeal to the community to apply for those jobs and come work in the homelessness sector so that we can be much more responsive…to the needs of those [who] are most vulnerable in our community,” Ceacero said.

While the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness will no longer run the EWR program, she said the group will help out by amplifying the city’s messages when the protocol is activated.

‘They’re left with nothing’

Surviving the cold and wind was half the battle, according to Mcleod and Modeste. The other half is the struggle against bylaw officers carrying out the city’s policies. Victoria’s 7pm to 7am sheltering bylaw means that temporary structures like tents are allowed overnight in some parks, but not during the day. 

Modeste says this has meant bylaw officers are able to confiscate the very things homeless people need to stay warm during the day, when people leave them unattended to go access services nearby. 

“If the tents are wet or get a bit muddy or dirty, bylaw tends to just take them if [people are] at Our Place having breakfast or something,” Modeste said. “The thing is that [people] have no control over wet and dirty tents right now, and then they’re left with nothing.”

Things were no different on Tuesday morning; people on Pandora Avenue were seen hastily packing up their belongings while bylaw officers walked around, confiscating items they deemed unattended.

Bylaw officers walk around Pandora Avenue on Tuesday. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

“Our bylaw people have to do their work as guided by our protocols and policies we have in place,” Victoria’s new mayor, Marianne Alto told Capital Daily. “So that's [a] conversation I guess our new council should have about whether or not they want those policies to remain in place.”

According to the City of Victoria’s social media accounts, the EWR will stay activated through the night on Tuesday, ending at 8am Wednesday. This means the warming centre at James Bay United Church, and the extra 20 mats at Rock Bay Landing, will be available for people to use. 

But for Modeste, who was up until 5am Tuesday morning trying to find officials from the city and other agencies to help her find warmth for the city’s most vulnerable, it’s time to take matters into her own hands.

She plans to set up a gazebo-style tent with a donated fire pit on Pandora Avenue Tuesday night. 

“There’s no housing, there’s no shelter space, what are they supposed to do?” Modeste said. “In this kind of weather that we've been [having] all weekend, you think there could have been a little compassion. That’s not the Victoria I’ve grown up in.”

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