Cold weather shelter in Penticton turns into council debate

Penticton City Council grappled with the question of how cold is too cold responding to a request from B.C. Housing.

Penticton city council has voted to change the conditions relating to cold weather protocol as to when emergency shelters should be opened for the homeless.

Penticton city council has voted to change the conditions relating to cold weather protocol as to when emergency shelters should be opened for the homeless.

Moonlit snow sparkling in the street might create a beautiful frozen landscape viewed from the warmth of your home, but when your home is the street, it’s quite a different thing.

Penticton City Council grappled with the question of how cold is too cold responding to a request from B.C. Housing for recommendations on an extreme weather protocol for the city.

When the weather meets certain conditions, the protocol is triggered, opening up extra shelter beds, saving lives by getting the homeless off the street.

Read more: Penticton group warming hearts and bodies of those in need

Emergency weather response beds have changed throughout the years, weather used to have to reach -10 C or 30 or more centimetres of snow. The three triggers staff recommended to council are: temperature below – 5 C, forecast of more than five cm of snow or freezing rain.

In the past, the service has been provided by groups like the Cold Snap Inn, and is now handled by the Salvation Army’s Compass House, which offers its existing emergency response shelter and an additional 12 temporary beds when the streets get too cold. But with a temperature trigger set at -5 C, Penticton is one of the most restrictive cities in the province, according to planning manager Blake Laven.

But the system doesn’t always work, according to Coun. Judy Sentes.  She said confusion over emergency response protocols last winter necessitated intervention by Penticton MLA Dan Ashton during a particularly cold and wet holiday season to get the doors open.

“This was the catalyst that created a very large group of concerned citizens and service providers in Penticton to find resolutions before another winter season was upon us,” said Sentes, whose appeal to modify the trigger conditions and endorse the recommendation brought forward by staff met with mixed responses from fellow councillors.

Coun. Helena Konanz suggested moving the trigger temperature to -2 C, but was concerned about the effect that might have on Compass House’s finances, since they might be called into play more often, and whether it would interfere with the operation’s usual role as high barrier men’s shelter.

Read more: Meeting to discuss homelessness in Penticton

“The Compass House service is a very important one. It is to deal with men that are in crisis. It is a bit of an experiment to have the extreme weather shelter co-located with them,” said Laven. “When that extreme response is open, it does interfere with the day-to-day operation of the shelter.”

Konanz said the city should work with Compass House to find an activation temperature that works for them this year, but if that number is too low, then moving the cold weather shelter to another location should be considered for next year.

“Because obviously, it won’t work and we can’t keep on like this,” said Konanz,  who made the motion to recommend a -2 C threshold.

The other discussion point was whether city council should be making the recommendation in the first place.

“I am having a difficult time with this one. I actually don’t feel like  this question should have been brought  forward to council,” said Coun. Max Picton, explaining his feeling there was a lack of information along with a lack of expertise on the part of council.

“I don’t feel comfortable  endorsing or not endorsing a recommendation. I don’t feel experienced enough in this to do that comfortably,” said Picton.

Coun. Campbell Watt agreed with Picton’s view, but said a decision was necessary, with the cold weather season already starting.

“I think we do have to step up and go with what we believe is the right thing,” said Watt, who agreed with the -2 C recommendation.

Jakubeit pointed out that with the high winds Penticton gets hit with, wind chill could make that -2 C feel like -10 C.

“What’s in front of us now is establishing some criteria for extreme weather,” said Jakubeit, pointing out that the subject was a recommendation for B.C. Housing, not a city policy. “We are not the funding authority or the operator, but we were asked to provide comment.”

Sentes said it is getting late in the year, and council shouldn’t delay their decision. B.C. Housing is abdicating from making the decision around criteria, said Sentes.

“They are willing to give the money, but they’re not willing to make the criteria any more, because the province is so diverse,” she said. Sentes said a committee has worked since last year trying to make sure there won’t be a problem.

“Now it is the middle of November and we are still struggling,” said Sentes. “In social conscience, we have to step forward. I think we are obligated to do this. We are a community partner, these are our citizens in our community.”

Compass House might not be ideal, but Sentes said that is a different conversation.

“The last thing I want on my conscience or the conscience of our community is to have a death,” said Sentes, who agreed with the temperature change, but also wanted to see another trigger, freezing rain, changed to just rain.

The temperature could be zero, she said, but rain could make life on the street dangerous at any temperature.

Council didn’t have an appetite for Sentes’ change, but did vote 4-2 in favour of the staff recommendations, amended to change the temperature trigger to -2 C. Picton left the room prior to the vote.

Mike Förster of the Keep the Cold Off Penticton said more still needs to be done.

Read more: A night out with Keep the Cold Off Penticton

“I definitely don’t think it’s enough. It is a good start, it shows we are progressing from where we have been in the past,” said Förster, who would like see Penticton emulate other cities who set their trigger at -1 C.

“I just don’t understand why we can’t follow a similar process,” he said, adding that some council members need to be more engaged.

“We need a full time shelter until we get affordable housing for these people,” he said. “Any kind of inclement weather, rain snow, I think wind chill should be taken into account.”