Why People Without Housing Still Need Heat: The Limits of the City’s Winter Response Strategy

Vancouver is experiencing a colder than usual winter and with temperatures dropping well below freezing, city residents are forced to navigate heavy snowfall. With this cold snap, people living at Oppenheimer Park and others who rely on public space for shelter must contend with a multitude of competing health and safety risks. As City officials continue to deny basic health necessities like heat and power to Oppenheimer Tent City, keeping warm is becoming increasingly impossible.

We recently sent letters calling on both Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) and the City of Vancouver to “meet people where they are” and provide warming options for those who will inevitably remain outside in the cold this season. No one is claiming that tent cities are utopias, but they are a critical people-driven response to the housing and opioid crises. Displacement will not solve the (government-driven) housing shortage, and the City and Province have an obligation to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

Photo: Sozan Savehilaghi - Pivot Legal Society | Oppenheimer Park residents hit with heavy snowfall without on-site warming options.

Housing Justice for all.

The City of Vancouver has released multiple statements over the past two weeks, touting their Winter Response Strategy, which is largely based on the following:

  • Permanent shelters: shelters that are open year-round;
  • Temporary shelters: seasonal shelters, typically open from November through March;
  • Emergency Weather Response (EWR) shelters: shelters that open when temperatures are at actual or “feels like” 0°C; and
  • Warming Centres: indoor spaces without beds or bedding that open when temperatures are at actual or “feels like” -5°C.

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Photo: Chrissy Brett - Park advocate | The volunteer-run Overdose Prevention Site (structure to the left) at Oppenheimer Park remains in operation in the cold while those volunteering at and using the OPS have no approved source of heat

While Pivot supports the opening of additional emergency beds and warming spaces, the City’s Winter Response Strategy continues to be completely inadequate to meet the needs of Vancouver’s large population of unhoused people. Among these shortcomings are the following core issues cited in our recent correspondence:

  • There is not enough housing or even shelter beds for the City’s current unhoused population. Last year’s "homeless count" found that over 600 of the 2223 people counted were completely unsheltered. The count took place in March when the City’s temporary shelters were still open. Hundreds more people become unsheltered on April 1st, 2019 and will again this year.
  • Many people without housing cannot use existing shelters because they are not safe or accessible. While many people do make use of existing shelters and Warming Centres, many others cannot make use of these spaces for a myriad of personal and logistical reasons. 11% of last year’s homeless count respondents said they could not stay in shelters because they did not feel safe there. Many others have cited being turned away, bed bugs, pests, bans on pets, abstinence requirements, and a host of other reasons. It is this persistent inaccessibility that led the BC Supreme Court to conclude, in Abbotsford (City) v Shantz, that any assessment of “available” shelter must not only be quantitative but also qualitative.
  • Much of the City’s Winter Response Strategy is only activated at or below 0°C – a temperature that appears to have no medical basis. At least ten of the City’s winter shelters and/or Warming Centres are temperature-dependent, opening at 0°C and -5°C respectively. We are not aware of any medical evidence demonstrating that unsheltered people can safely be outside at 1°C for an extended period of time, especially given an inability to afford proper winter attire and being disproportionately impacted by pre-existing health conditions.
  • The City’s Warming Centres provide no beds or bedding. From the City’s own January 9, 2020, press release: “People with their own bedding may choose to sleep at the centres.” In essence, homeless people are welcome to sleep upright on chairs with their own blankets if they have them.

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Photo: Chrissy Brett - Park advocate | Foreground: ceremonial fire, the only heat source currently permitted at Oppenheimer Park, Background: donated “warming tents” which are currently set up yet inoperative because the VFRS will not approve a heat source. | January 15, 2020

  • The City’s Winter Response Strategy does not recognize that people need access to sheltered space during the day. At least 12 of the City’s permanent/temporary shelters and all of the EWR shelters only operate overnight. Based on Pivot’s preliminary count, this results in approximately 600 people being forced onto the streets each morning between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., depending on when the shelter closes. Neither the City’s winter strategy nor their year-round shelter operations recognize the simple reality that unsheltered people, like all people, need access to indoor space on a more than overnight basis for the purposes of resting, sleeping, staying warm, etc. At some point, everyone gets sick or has a sleepless night and needs to rest during the day; many others are accustomed to sleeping during the day for safety reasons or because of their hours of employment. Public and private spaces such as libraries and coffee shops may offer limited daytime access but they generally do not permit people to sleep or bring in their possessions and many are subject to private security which moves people along.
  • Unsheltered people are forced to choose between temporary warmth and their belongings. Some shelters allow people to bring in a limited number of personal possessions, most force people to leave the majority of their belongings outside. A person who abandons their tent or makeshift shelter for a night indoors risks returning to nothing – their possessions may be stolen in their absence, or as we have witnessed many times, City bylaw officers may simply have pitched their entire tent and all its contents in a waste compactor before they return.

As long as Vancouver continues to lack adequate, accessible, affordable housing, there will be many people who are forced to sleep outside and who will need to warm themselves.

As housing activists across the globe have repeatedly made clear: shelters are not housing. There are many, profoundly rational reasons why some people cannot access existing shelter spaces. As long as Vancouver continues to lack adequate, accessible, affordable housing, there will be many people who are forced to sleep outside and who will need to warm themselves.

Read Our Letters to Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services and the City of Vancouver Here

Refusing to provide unsheltered people with a harm reduction based approach to heating themselves simply forces people—as a course of survival—to resort to less safe heating options. We’ve seen this time and again. This is not a fire safety strategy, this is government actors refusing to engage with reality and blaming homeless people for the inevitable, mortal consequences.  The City continues to be the single greatest barrier to ensuring basic health necessities—like heat and light—to Oppenheimer residents.

Act now

Please contact our Mayor and Council to demand compassionate action now.

Contact Mayor Kennedy Stewart here

Contact Vancouver City Council here