Deep freeze a major concern for Okanagan’s unhoused population

Click to play video: 'Concerns grow for Okanagan’s homeless population amid deep freeze'
Concerns grow for Okanagan’s homeless population amid deep freeze
As predicted, arctic air has started moving into the Interior, bringing with it very cold temperatures and this is just the beginning. The Okanagan is expecting highs of around minus 20 starting tomorrow and lows far below that. That is especially concerning for the unhoused population and could mean a matter of life and death. Klaudia Van Emmerik reports. – Jan 11, 2024

Thursday’s wind made the cold weather even more unbearable for those living at Kelowna’s designated outdoor sheltering site along the Okanagan Rail Trail.

“It’s very cold,” outdoor sheltering site resident Jason Lachance said.

Lachance said he’s trying to figure out how he’ll cope over the next several days as the arctic front pushes temperatures down even further, with lows dropping to -25 C.

When asked how he’ll keep warm, Lachance told Global News: “With fires.”

He’s far from alone.

Propane tanks are a common sight along that section of the rail trail. And while the warmth from the fires is badly needed, it also poses a major risk.

There have already been several tent fires this winter as people try and stay warm, including a big one this past weekend.

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“The potential is significant and the carbon monoxide buildup inside those unventilated tents is also a concern for us,” Kelowna Fire Department Deputy Chief Larry Watkinson said.

Outreach teams, like one from the Ki-low-na Friendship Society, are doing extra checks on people with winter supplies on hand.

“We gather up some blankets, toques, gloves, food and water. We walk all the way down the rail trail and give it out to the population here,” outreach worker Carissa Marianne said.

The situation is dire for many more people this winter compared to a year ago.

“One year ago, we counted a total of about 110 people sheltering citywide. And right now, that number is about 200 citywide as of this morning,” said Darren Caul, community safety director with the City of Kelowna.

Click to play video: 'Shelters gearing up for an extreme drop in temperatures'
Shelters gearing up for an extreme drop in temperatures

Caul said the city is deeply concerned for people’s well-being.

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“I’ve been at this for five years and I can tell you … everybody who works in this sector absolutely knows that and feels it,” Caul stated.

Caul added that the city is doing everything it can to mitigate the risks, including holding a meeting every morning for a daily response to the cold.

“We have an extreme weather response table that is meeting to assess our responses and whether there are any changes,” he said.

As of Wednesday night, the city has also brought in warming buses for overnight to offer some relief.

“We piloted this last year, we piloted one bus overnight,” Caul said. “We have significantly more people who are unhoused in our community today, so we’ve scaled that up to three buses.”

The city has also deployed what are called thermal shelters that can go inside tents for those would like one.

“These thermal shelters are like a small, small igloo-type shelter that we introduced last year,” he said. “Now they had very mixed results within the unhoused community, so the uptake is actually quite limited.”

While the number of unhoused people far outnumbers shelter spaces, Caul said as of Wednesday, there were still about two dozen spots available. How long they will remain open is not known with even colder weather in the forecast for the coming days.

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“Unfortunately, the perennial challenge that we have as a city is one of a labour market,” Caul said. “So every year people will say, ‘Well, can’t you just open up bricks and mortar, you know, open up a building?’ It is not that simple. You need specialized trained staff who can provide the level of support and supervision in those kinds of sites.”

Click to play video: 'Kelowna’s thermal shelter pilot project aimed a keeping people warm'
Kelowna’s thermal shelter pilot project aimed a keeping people warm


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