'People there are freezing': Homeless advocates call for warming tent at Oppenheimer Park

Snow hit Metro Vancouver hard over the past 24 hours -- and the people continuing to tent in Oppenheimer Park even harder.

Fiona York of the Carnegie Community Action project has been lobbying to get permission from the City of Vancouver to set up a safe warming tent for the approximately 40 people living outside in the tent city, which has been occupied on and off for six years.

York said this time last year she discussed the idea of a tent with Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

Despite weekly meetings to avoid a repeat of the winter situation in 2019, she said too many people were left in the cold again when temperatures dipped to –7 C today in Vancouver.

"It's just more of people being really, really cold. There's just not really a way to escape," she said.

But city staff say there are options, and now they are open more often.

City of Vancouver staff say the Powell Street Getaway warming centre is open 100 metres away from the park and it's already helped 3,250 people over the 28 days its been open this winter.

"We want to ensure that anyone who is sleeping outside knows that there are safe, warm, dry places to come in," said Celine Mauboules, Vancouver's director of homelessness services.  

The city has said that the four extreme weather warming shelters will now be open even when it just feels like zero degrees. In the past they only opened extreme shelters when temperatures dipped below –5 degrees.

Centres open as of Jan 12 include:

  • Britannia Community Centre – 9 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.
  • Vancouver Aquatic Centre – 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Overdose Prevention Society – 11 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Extreme weather response spaces are also open in community centres around the city, with 160 spots open Monday night.

"People can come with their belongings, their pets. We have food, we have hot beverages," said Mauboules.

Community centres and public businesses are also open throughout the day during business hours, she added.

"We really encourage anyone who is outside to come inside and get warm," she said. 

In a further statement, the City of Vancouver also raised safety concerns about a temporary outdoor structure.

"Heating tents or other temporary structures pose significant fire and other safety hazards, thus making it very difficult to maintain an acceptable level of safety."

'People there are freezing'

York and others laud the extended hours but say they don't erase the need for a warming tent. She said people who live outside have no way to know when the centres are open or not.

"You are leaving your belongings not knowing if the place is open or now — and it won't provide a sleeping mat or a place to sleep. You are just sitting up in a noisy atmosphere with a lot of people."

Early Monday former Calgary pilot Shawn Jackman shivered as he walked in the snow past some rats foraging in some garbage on the sidewalk by Oppenheimer park.

He said he was asked to leave a nearby shelter at around 7 a.m. PT. That left two hours before the Powell Street drop-in opened. Jackman said his options were stark.

"You just go outside — and you are outside," he said.

Perhaps Jackman didn't realize that Union Gospel Mission does let people stay for coffee and warmth for two hours after the 72 shelter beds empty at 7 a.m.

Jeremy Hunka of UGM, said they extend their hours when it's cold, but some still leave the abstinence-based shelter.

"They might not want to be surrounded by people," he said.

Hunka said a warming tent could only help.

"We would absolutely welcome a warming tent in Oppenheimer during extreme cold. People there are freezing."

But York said repeated attempts to meet with city and fire officials to try to get permission to heat a shelter in the park, have failed, despite this being done in other cities.

"We are ready and set up. We are not even asking for funding. We have three warming tents and they are sitting empty."

Yvette Brend/CBC

If you know a person living on the street, the city urges you to direct them to a warming centre or other shelters detailed at Vancouver.ca, or call 2-1-1.

People can also get a cheap meal, shower or laundry at Carnegie, Evelyne Saller and Gathering Place community centres. These and other buildings such as libraries and community centres, are also available during their opening hours as spaces to warm up during extreme weather conditions.