If you were hoping to start 2017 with a sign that this year would be better than the last, then you probably didn’t spend last night at the Vancouver Park Board’s emergency meeting.
A short primer for those not up to speed: It is butt-numbingly, face-chappingly, lake-freezingly cold in Vancouver right now and it’s been this way since before Christmas. On Dec. 16 it was cold enough for the City of Vancouver and the senior staff of the Vancouver Park Board to agree to open emergency warming centres, including community centres, for our homeless residents. The city promised to pay the extra costs; the centres needed only to open their doors. And so, on Dec. 17 they did. Since then, they’ve served more than 2,000 people as we collectively endure this bout of ‘real winter’ that’s holding on tighter than a toddler to a parent’s leg on the first day of preschool.
Unfortunately, the decision to use community centres for this service raised the ire of the NPA Park Board commissioners. Citing the fact that community centre staff are not equipped to deal with situations that arise when the homeless use the facilities overnight, they called an emergency meeting Thursday night to vote on a motion from Commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung to close the warming centres immediately and indefinitely.
Like the majority of Vancouverites, I had no idea any of this was happening until the meeting had already started. Bubbling with outrage, I recruited my equally frustrated friend Tara Nelson to come with me. We arrived late and stood at the back. Dozens of others had the same instinct as us, and were speaking eloquently about the need for shelters during cold weather.
For the next hour and a half, the six-person board debated two motions — one to keep the centres open (and to open them in the future when necessary), and Commissioner Kirby-Yung’s original motion to do the opposite. There was an obvious divide on the board, with former NPA commissioner Erin Shum siding with the Green Party commissioners, and trading barbs with the three remaining NPA members. The mood was tense, the questions pointed, and my mind wandered back to the last time it was this cold in Vancouver.
I remember it clearly.
It was winter 2008 and I’d just moved to the city. I lived in a tiny drafty ground-floor bachelor near the Biltmore Cabaret, with single-paned patio doors sealed up with plastic wrap to trap heat. I was broke, unemployed and freezing — wearing leaky boots that soaked through when I tramped in the snow and a winter coat best described as ‘the cheapest they sold at Reitmans.’ But despite all the snow on the ground and the chill in the air, I had a roof and walls and hot water. I was lucky.
I wasn’t like Tracey.
On Dec. 19, 2008, she was freezing too. Homeless and living out of a shopping cart on the corner of Davie and Hornby in downtown Vancouver, she’d created a structure to try and keep warm in the minus nine degree cold. At some point in the evening, she borrowed a lighter from a police officer to light a candle for extra heat. Later that night, her belongings caught fire. By 4:30 in the morning, both she and her cart were engulfed. She did not survive.
A peal of applause brought me back to the room.
It was 11 p.m. and both motions were officially defeated, dying 3-3. Tara and I shuffled outside, our still-angry breaths forming crystalline clouds. “They’re not even hiding that they hate each other, huh?” Tara asked.
“Not anymore,” I replied.
On our way back home, we stopped at the Commercial Drive SuperValu. We loaded up on bananas, jam, peanut butter, bread and hot chocolate and took them to the Britannia Community Centre. They accepted the food gratefully, admitting they’d just run out. I checked the temperature on my phone: minus four.
In 2008, Tracey’s story made national headlines. Like so many others who have to give their lives for people to pay attention, her death sparked a conversation about empathy and what cities can do to help protect people and their basic, human decency. Politicians at all levels pledged work together to do better.
Nine years on, there’s so much more to be done.
Disclosure: Heather Libby worked on the Vision Vancouver election campaign in 2014.