“We just scramble”: How short notice from the City complicates organizing warming centres

Let community organizations run their own centres, suggests advocate

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      The snow has melted and the very worst of Vancouver’s winter weather is likely over. But the need for better communication between the City and the people who run warming centres remains, advocate Amal Ishaque told the Straight.

      Ishaque, co-founder of the Marpole Mutual Aid Network, advocated for two years to get Marpole Neighbourhood House designated as a warming centre. And while the site has been open during a number of cold snaps now, including last winter, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to organize. Despite weather forecasts showing extreme cold or storm conditions sometimes weeks ahead of time, Ishaque said the warming centres are left in the lurch about when they can open. 

      “Notice for when [the warming centre is] going to be open usually comes mid-afternoon … even though extreme weather has been forecast for at least a few days,” they said in a phone interview. 

      The Marpole Mutual Aid Network are the people who spread the word that the Marpole warming centre is open. Their capacity to do outreach is limited when they receive an email from the City only a few hours before the centre opens, Ishaque explained. 

      “We just scramble that day to make posters, to get out and do actual street outreach, to actually directly speak to unhoused neighbours to let them know [the site is open],” they said. 

      Marpole is a very diverse neighbourhood, and people without stable housing may not speak English or have access to the internet to be able to find out information about safe warming options available to them—hence the need for extensive in-person outreach. And while Lookout Society provides staff to run warming centres overnight, there is no additional help with getting the word out.

      “The City isn’t doing that outreach. Who is doing that outreach? So it gets downloaded to mutual aid collectives and grassroots collectives like ours. We end up literally pounding the pavement, and in the midst of that we’re having these constant reminders, having to send emails to multiple people in the City,” Ishaque said.

      Warming centres like Marpole Neighbourhood House are activated by the City when the weather feels like -5°C or below. They serve as a safe and warm space overnight, though without dedicated sleeping arrangements. Extreme weather response shelters with beds open when it feels like 0°C or there is snow, high winds or heavy rain tend to be clustered downtown. The extreme weather alert issued for March 7 to 9 for temperatures that feel like freezing has six extra shelters open (plus one warming centre), of which only two are south of False Creek.

      Ishaque said that communication with the City is often frustrating, as reasons defending the short notice for opening could shift and change. They suggested that putting more autonomy into the hands of community organizations to decide when to open, rather than waiting for approval from the City, could be a possible solution. 

      “We know that there’s so many agencies, departments, parties, staff involved at a higher level in decision-making and delivery. And those are not people who are in this actual community. So we feel like the City should provide funding, a clear set of protocols, and let the on-the-ground community partner and community leaders… decide when to open, based upon available forecasts,” they said. “Leave the actual decision in the hands of community partners and the people here, and remove the need to gain approval on a near-daily basis from the City—that’s where the bottleneck is.” 

      Marpole, specifically the area south of 70th Avenue, is a fair distance from any extreme weather shelters. Ishaque said City staff expected local unhoused people to go to Langara, at 49th and Alberta—a 40-minute walk from the neighbourhood that’s made more difficult by factors like snow, rain, ice, mobility impairments, or lack of access to transit.

      “That’s way too far, and unhoused neighbours have told us that if it’s a choice between staying in their tent or sleeping outside in any form, and having to go all that distance [to Langara], they might make the decision to stay in their tent without realizing how much colder it’s going to get as the night progresses,” they said. “It’s about literally people potentially losing their lives.”

      Coun. Christine Boyle told CBC News’ Early Edition last week that City staff have to manage many different tasks to activate extreme weather shelters and warming centres.

      “I know our staff are stretched. They’re working with a mix of partners in neighbourhoods all over the city, and this is a clear and important ask,” she said. 

      In an emailed statement, the City of Vancouver said, "Staff regularly monitor the weather forecast for upcoming weather patterns and make the best decisions possible, based on predictive forecasts that may fluctuate. As part of our process, alongside our project partners, we plan and confirm activations based on the availability of space, and staff for a warming centre opening in accordance with program parameters. Once all sites are confirmed, a notification is sent broadly to all community partners."

      Meanwhile, climate change continues to shift the kind of weather that’s happening, including extreme weather. “We know these types of extreme weather events are only increasing,” Coun. Boyle said in the same interview.

      According to the City’s own data, Marpole has the third-lowest median household income in Vancouver, along with high rates of renters, people who don’t speak English, immigrants, minority groups, and seniors. Extreme heat is also a problem, as few buildings have air conditioning. The Marpole Mutual Aid Network successfully lobbied to have a local misting station installed in July 2021.

      “People are facing an intersecting number of issues: food insecurity, housing insecurity… gentrification, and also the infrastructures here are quite old,” Ishaque said. “It’s a neighbourhood that’s neglected by the City, because the City assumes that people can move to the wealthier parts that are not necessarily that closeby.”

      The warming centre is still on probation, and Ishaque worried the City may not continue running it if numbers are low—even if that’s caused by communication difficulties. In a statement, the City said the warming centre programme "is not based on targets."

      “At the end of each season, the City reviews, with its partners, how this season went, what is working well and where there may be challenges to overcome. It will be important to look at how warming centres also fit within the suite of winter shelter programs funded by the Province," the statement reads.

      Ishaque hopes the Marpole warming centre will continue to serve the neighbourhood’s unhoused residents, and said the local mutual aid collective will continue to support the local community. 

      “We’re an incredibly amazing neighbourhood, that’s one of the most diverse, I would say, in the City. And that’s one of the reasons I love it here,” they said. “I think we are a community that really takes care of each other, but the City also needs to do some of that work.”