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How cold is too cold?

With RMOW emergency shelter plan set to kick in at -20 C, WCSS searches for space that could open in -10 C or warmer
The Whistler Public Library, pictured, was activated as an emergency cold weather shelter on Wednesday, Nov. 30, as temperatures dipped below -20 C with the wind chill.

When temperatures plunged below the -20-degree-C mark between Boxing Day and New Year’s last December, Whistler did something it had never done before: opened an overnight emergency shelter at the Whistler Public Library. The shelter was activated for six nights and jointly facilitated by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS). A total of 19 people sought refuge in that time, according to the RMOW, or about six occupants per night, according to WCSS.

“After that, we started meeting as a group again, and saying, ‘That was really successful [and] much needed in the community,’” explained WCSS executive director Jackie Dickinson, “‘and with the impacts of climate change and the increase of precariously-housed individuals in our community, how can we work together and what can we do to continue this type of initiative moving forward?’”

The result is the RMOW’s new Extreme Cold Weather Shelter Plan (ECWSP), approved by mayor and council for use at the Whistler Public Library (WPL) as needed from now until March 31, 2023.

The RMOW will activate the plan whenever Environment Canada issues a cold weather warning for the resort, more specifically when temperatures reach at least -20 C with the wind chill for a minimum of six hours, or -35 C for at least two hours. The shelter was activated for the first time on Wednesday night, Nov. 30, as overnight temperatures in Whistler were predicted to hit -23 C with the wind chill.

Based on Whistler’s typical weather patterns, RMOW staff expect to see the EWSP activated once or twice over the course of the winter, tallying up to about 10 nights each year. Funds for the shelter will come from Emergency Management BC.

As bitter temperatures settled into the Sea to Sky this week, Dickinson was working diligently to find a warm, safe space where any local who needs one can spend the night, even when conditions don’t meet that threshold. For the WCSS, that -20 C threshold is too high to leave Whistler’s more vulnerable community members out in the cold. The organization is currently working with BC Housing to establish another emergency shelter this winter that will activate when temperatures instead reach -10 C. The issue? WCSS hasn’t been able to lock in a location.

As per the definition of “extreme weather conditions” set out by B.C.’s Assistance to Shelter Act for communities within the Vancouver Coastal region, Whistler’s threshold for shelter activation could be set as high as -4 C, Dickinson explained. “Our ultimate goal would be to be able to activate [a shelter] at -4, but we’re still in the process of finding a location that could meet that criteria,” she said.

The RMOW’s -20 C threshold was determined “based on what we had to put in place last winter, and then also looking at the number of activations that the library could practically operate,” explained Ginny Cullen, the RMOW’s chief administrative officer. Activations are defined as “the number of times [the library] would need to be opened as a shelter—so one activation could be for a number of days—but it’s the activation of opening it up as a shelter and then closing it down again, when we look at what the library is able to support operationally.”

In a letter to stakeholders seen by Pique, RMOW manager of protective services Lindsay DeBou said emergency extreme-weather shelters often provide facilities like laundry, showers, and secure storage, in addition to a supervised place to sleep.

“Given the limitations of the WPL, this facility cannot provide all the basic needs for long-term or frequent shelter care,” DeBou wrote. “However, it can provide an important community asset for the most extreme cold weather temperatures of the season.”

With WCSS staff in place and funding from BC Housing and the Whistler Health Care Foundation lined up, the last hurdle for WCSS’ lower-threshold emergency shelter is finding space.

The non-profit even investigated the possibility of accommodating an emergency shelter in their Nesters Road office, but an operation of that nature “is currently not permitted at the Whistler Community Services society site” due to a stipulation in WCSS’ lease agreement, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton explained.

Crompton said the RMOW is “grateful” to WCSS for pursuing a lower-threshold shelter and is working with the organization to ensure any potential locations are “free from constraints, zoning, or otherwise.”

He added, “We’re supportive of this work and enthusiastic about finding a location that is ideally suited for the task.”

Dickinson, for her part, said WCSS is similarly thankful to the municipality for its willingness to activate a shelter at -20 C. “And yet, we still strongly believe that an activation at a temperature of -4 or colder will work to ensure we mitigate the risks related to adverse health-care outcomes when it comes to being homeless and outside in the cold,” she added. “We’re going to continue to work with the key stakeholders in the community to find a location and, and I hope I can report back sometime soon that we have that location available.”

Officials from both the RMOW and WCSS acknowledged the number of temporary shelter visits last winter does not accurately represent the community’s current needs, and agree more work is needed to better understand the demand for temporary shelters in Whistler. The municipality has secured funding to carry out a vulnerable population study that will, ideally, provide more clarity. The assessment will be conducted “with input from WCSS and other non-profit organizations,” Cullen explained in a follow-up email, “because they have the best connections to this particular demographic.”

According to B.C.-based data-tracking website, Whistler sees temperatures fall past the -20 C mark on just one or two nights a year between November and February, and an average of 19 days where temperatures drop below the -10 C mark.

The minimum temperature hits -2 C far more frequently, on about 90 days each year, on average.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses more heat than it can produce and its internal temperature drops below 35 C. The Canada Safety Council warns cold air “does not have to be frigid,” to be hazardous. “Hypothermia can happen at under 10 C,” according to the organization, “so it’s a threat even with above-average winter temperatures.”