News / Vancouver

West End Community Centre reopens as overnight shelter after Park Board controversy

Park Board chair says the service is needed to address a crisis, and more resources are being devoted to make sure centres stay safe for everyone

Creekside Community Centre in Olympic Village.

Wanyee Li

Creekside Community Centre in Olympic Village.

There is no evidence that discarded needles pose any more harm to public health than “a rusty nail,” says B.C.’s provincial health officer, calling the controversy around Vancouver’s cold weather warming centres “unfortunate” in the wake of a used needle being found by a child at Creekside Community Centre on Jan. 9

“Obviously you want to keep (needles) away from kids,” said Dr. Perry Kendall following a public event in Point Grey. “But opening warming centres during the (cold spell) — people can get hypothermia and they can die — the decision was the right one to make.”

Starting in December, the city began opening several community centres overnight. People could come and go, or could sleep at the centres through the night. But following the needle incident, this week the city ceased using most of the community centres as warming centres and opened Carnegie Community Hall, the Quality Inn on Hornby St. and Evelyn Saller Centre. The warming centre at Britannia Community Centre stayed open.

To date, the warming centres have seen 4,000 visits as a cold snap that began in December has kept temperatures below freezing for much of January as well.

At a Jan. 12 Park Board meeting, Non-Partisan Association commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung brought forward a motion to suspend operation of warming centres at community centres while the city worked with the park board on a long-term plan. The motion was defeated.

On Jan. 13 the park board announced that West End Community Centre would again open at 10 p.m. to provide overnight shelter from the cold.

“We’re in a time of crisis and we’re seeing it all over the place. In Strathcona Community Centre they do needle sweeps three times a day or more — needles are just part of their community,” said Mike Wiebe, chair of the park board, who voted against the motion.

“It’s a park board issue because it deals with out playgrounds and our parks, with the public and the city and how we help our vulnerable people.”

Kirby-Yung said the city did not consult with the park board as the initiative went from being an emergency measure to a longer-term service, and there were problems with park board staff dealing with situations they weren’t familiar with.

“We had the president of the West End Community Centre Association come and speak last night, and he was going on about all the significant challenges they’d had.” Kirby-Yung claimed those challenges included public urination and defecation and “shooting up in front of children.” Needles continue to be a significant concern, she said.

Wiebe said staff and resources were being stretched thin. More staff, including park rangers and extra security, will be on hand tonight. The park board says the decision to open the West End Community Centre was made in consultation with the West End Community Centre Association and at request of the homeless outreach team at the City of Vancouver.

Wiebe added that of 350 emails the park board received about the warming centres over the past week, 342 were supportive of the service.

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