With the capital region in the grip of an arctic cold front, Victoria city council passed an emergency motion Thursday directing staff to work with agencies to open more shelter beds at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre or other city facilities.
Coun. Ben Isitt, who put forward the motion, expressed frustration that the city wasn’t already “at the front of the line,” opening its buildings to meet basic humanitarian needs.
“The intent behind this motion is to make it crystal clear that City of Victoria facilities should be available for the next few days to reduce the risk of the loss of life, which is a very real risk,” Isitt said, noting that one man was injured in a tent fire near Rock Bay Landing on Wednesday night. “That’s an extremely unfortunate and an avoidable situation.”
Mayor Lisa Helps and city manager Jocelyn Jenkyns assured council that staff were working with churches and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness throughout the day on Thursday to open more beds.
“I believe we are exhausting everything that we can lay our hands on,” Jenkyns said.
At the same time, other organizations were busy handing out supplies to help keep people without homes safe and warm.
Our Place director of communications Grant McKenzie said there are plenty of coats to distribute, thanks to a collection drive by Victory Barber & Brand.
The community organization is also giving out sleeping bags and blankets to help people who are staying in tents, McKenzie said.
“We’re getting the word out to people who are in those tents to stop by Our Place,” he said. “Every winter we have a concern.”
Our Place has two shelters, one at the Cool Aid Society’s Downtown Community Centre and one at First Metropolitan United Church, but both have limited capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The First Metropolitan shelter, for example, can hold only 30 people instead of the usual 60.
“Overnight, all we can really do at this moment is make sure people have enough clothing and sleeping bags to make it through,” McKenzie said.
One risk is tent fires during cold snaps, as people try to stay warm.
Housing Minister David Eby said frigid weather raises the risk that people will bring propane heaters and camp stoves inside. “We’ve had an explosion in Nanaimo of a propane tank, we’ve had fires in Vancouver and in Victoria at encampments,” he said.
While shelter was available in Victoria at the time of Wednesday’s fire, Eby said, some people prefer the privacy of a tent.
Weather conditions could get worse before they get better, with Environment Canada warning that a winter storm could bring up to 25 centimetres of snow to Greater Victoria on Friday and Saturday, although meteorologist Armel Castellan said there might be less impact at lower elevations.
“There’s still a lot of the nuances — whether this is going to be a widespread 10 to 20 centimetres, or 15 to 25, and exactly where will be the hardest hit,” he said. “But, generally, the idea is it’s south Vancouver Island.”
Victoria, Cowichan, Lake Cowichan, Port Renfrew, Nanaimo and Campbell River could all be affected, as could Tofino, Castellan said.
He said there are similarities in the forecast to the significant snowfall Victoria saw in February 2019.
A transition to a mixture of snow and rain is expected to start late on Sunday, with a warming trend late on Monday and through the rest of next week.
But higher elevations, such as the Malahat, could see more snow, said Castellan, who called the shift from relatively warm temperatures in December and January to a cold February “a thermal whiplash,” with February likely ending up colder than normal.
Temperatures at Victoria Harbour and Victoria International Airport were down to -8 C with the wind chill factored in on Thursday morning, while today’s temperatures could be slightly higher.