With Whistler temperatures dropping this week to lows not seen since the 1980s, the need for an emergency cold-weather shelter for those dealing with inadequate housing has never been more critical.
On Dec. 20, Whistler’s mayor and council supported an amended lease agreement between the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), which will allow the social-service provider to use its building at 8000 Nesters Road as an emergency cold weather shelter.
WCSS executive director Jackie Dickinson welcomed the move of the emergency cold weather shelter from its current location at the Whistler Public Library, as it will help the social-service agency run the program more effectively.
“I think being able to house this program in our own building with our staff, and reconfirming to the community that we continue to be a trusting, welcoming place, is really going to be vital to the execution of this program,” Dickinson said.
“We’ve seen some really great community cooperation happen in the interim to support a really important need ... So it means us being able to offer more programming in one space to people who need it.”
For most of Whistler’s history, there have been no emergency cold weather shelters (ECWS), with the RMOW and WCSS operating a taxi voucher program that sent individuals needing emergency housing to the Squamish Helping Hands Society for overnight accommodation. At the same time, the WCSS provides items from the food bank and clothing from the Re-Use-It Centre.
In 2021, the RMOW launched a pilot project to use the Whistler Public Library (WPL) as an overnight emergency cold weather shelter. From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, 75 people accessed the shelter during the day, and 19 overnight. Due to fire regulations, the maximum capacity for the new shelter is six people per night.
Moving the emergency shelter to the WCSS headquarters will help make running it a more straightforward process, as social services staff—and volunteers from non-profit Zero Ceiling who have been lending a hand—will already be on site, and do not need to travel into the village to set up the temporary shelter.
After some debate behind the scenes on what temperature should activate the emergency shelter, both WCSS and RMOW compromised with BC Housing at -10 C for the Whistler area—the same threshold used in B.C.’s Interior, and six degrees colder than the -4 C threshold that most communities in the Vancouver Coastal region follow.
“WCSS has worked hard on this, as did our staff with BC Housing on a compromise; the -10 C activation criteria for the Interior region seemed to be a more appropriate level for building the plan upon,” said general manager of community and corporate services Ted Battiston.
The library ECWS is currently only activated when temperatures drop to -20 C, so the amended lease will allow the shelter to remain open for more extended periods during the winter. The new temporary shelter will consist of six beds on the third floor of the Nesters building.
Exactly how often the emergency cold weather shelter will be open is a difficult question to answer.
“When you look at how BC Housing has approached emergency response, this year they’ve lengthened the process for emergency weather responses throughout the province, so it’s normally Nov. 1 to Apr. 1, and it’s now Oct. 15 to Apr. 15, and that’s primarily driven by climate change,” Dickinson said.
“When we were looking at the stats to think about how often we would have to activate [an emergency shelter] this winter, we looked at it from a -10 threshold and -20. Obviously, these two activations [already this year] are definitely showing us that it’s going to be on the higher side than we anticipated.”
Once all the paperwork and plans are complete, the Nesters emergency shelter location will open to the public, which Dickinson expects could happen as early as the beginning of January in the new year.
For Councillor Cathy Jewett, moving the emergency shelter to Nesters is a step in the right direction.
“The sooner that we can take care of our own people, in our own community, the better,” Jewett said.
“I’m really thrilled for the Whistler Community Services to be able to offer this in their building. I’m also really proud that we’ve been able to do that in our library, and that people don’t have to take a taxi to another town to get out of the cold.”
- with files from Megan Lalonde