Toronto Star – Advocates for homeless call for more 24-hour cooling centres amid heat wave
heat warnings from Environment Canada and the City of Toronto, advocates for the homeless are calling on the city to extend the hours of its cooling centres to provide more relief from the blistering temperatures.
With Saturday’s temperature hitting a high of 35.4 C, setting a record for June 30, outreach workers who deal with the city’s most vulnerable populations say more needs to be done to help people experiencing homelessness beat the heat.
That includes making more of its seven cooling centres 24-hour-day operations. Currently, only the cooling centre at Metro Hall operates by these hours.
“Toronto Public Health is warning people to stay cool, so we need cool places for the homeless to go, not just shopping malls, libraries and community centres, which are not open 24-7,” said Cathy Crowe, a longtime street nurse and a visiting professor at Ryerson University.
She is calling on the city to not only extend the hours of its cooling centres, but also provide emergency funding for social agencies to do additional outreach to vulnerable populations on weekends and night during extreme weather alerts.
“Heat is hard on peoples’ health, especially if they have heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic health conditions, or if they’re on psychiatric medication,” Crowe said.
The previous record for June 30 was 35 C, set in 1964. Scorching temperatures are expected to continue into Canada Day, with a forecast daytime high of 35 C, which will feel more like the mid-40s with the humidity. Environment Canada is calling the prolonged high temperatures “the most significant heat event in the past few years.”
Bahar Shadpour, a spokesperson for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said that irrespective of extreme weather, no one should be forced to live outdoors because they do not have a place to call home.
“In extreme heat, cooling centres offer respite to many experiencing homelessness or inadequate housing — and can be a life saver. More than one 24-hour cooling centre in the city would assist more people suffering in these conditions,” she said, noting however, that a crisis-management model of responding to Toronto’s acute shortage of affordable housing is not enough. “The city and the province must commit to build housing that is truly affordable so low-income people are not forced to in live in unsafe and precarious conditions.”
In addition to its seven cooling centres, the city has 180 air-conditioned locations, including community centres and libraries, and operates about a dozen respite centres offering meals, cots and programming.
The city tweeted Saturday that outreach workers are on the road 24-7 this weekend, handing out water, checking on clients and offering transportation.
Don Peat, a spokesman for Mayor John Tory, told the Star Saturday the mayor “has led council in expanding Toronto’s shelter and respite system so that anyone who needs shelter in our city can find it.”
He said that 6,534 people are in Toronto’s homeless shelters, according to the most recent overnight statistics, and 541 people are in respite sites, which were extended beyond the winter season to help respond to increased demand for shelter.
“Despite this unprecedented demand for homeless services, the city has been providing shelter to those who need it, including refugee claimants and asylum seekers who occupy more than 40 per cent of the shelter system,” Peat said. “Mayor Tory has been very clear about the need for the federal and provincial governments to help with the shelter demands of refugee claimants.”
Dan, a man standing outside the mixed-gender respite centre at 354 George St., just south of Allan Gardens, told the Star on Saturday temperatures inside were “bearable.”
“You just have to stay still,” said Dan, who did not provide his last name. He said he has been staying at the centre since early last week after being evicted from his apartment near Jane St. and Lawrence Ave.
When asked what the city could do to help, he replied: “Get on the roof and fix the air conditioner. Simple enough.”
At Margaret’s Drop-In Centre on Dundas St. East near Sherbourne St., Kim, who did not give a last name, said she had been staying at the facility for about six months and wishes the city would provide standup fans to help alleviate the heat.
“I was worried I’d have heat stroke like my friend Carol did. When she had it, she collapsed,” said Kim, 39.
Kim was one of several guests at Margaret’s to grab water bottles being handed out Saturday afternoon by Jody Steinhauer, founder of the charity Engage and Change. Last week, for its summer initiative Project Water, the charity distributed more than 300,000 bottles of water, along with 3,000 survival kits containing more than two dozen items, such as sunscreen, hats and refillable water bottles, to more than 175 homeless shelters, outreach programs and drop-in centres in Toronto and surrounding areas.
On Saturday, Steinhauer said she got a call that Margaret’s was running low on its bottled water, so she dropped by to replenish its supply.
“During hot weather, there is an increased risk of dehydration due to the challenges of being homeless and outside with limited access to water,” said Steinhauer. “Nobody should die of dehydration. It’s as simple as that.”