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Climate change is making summer a lethal time for Toronto's most vulnerable

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Image: Pixabay

In a blog post published in April of this year,  I recounted the impact that heat waves have had on vulnerable populations since the 1990s.

In 2003, eight years after the Chicago catastrophe (700 dead), countries in western Europe experienced a heat wave that resulted in 27,000 dead: 15,000 deaths in France, between 4,000 and 8,000 in Italy, 1,300 in Portugal, and 2,000 in Britain. Many were seniors. Many were poor…Canada has also experienced heat waves. In 2005, at least six Toronto residents who lived in scorching rooming and boarding houses died during a heat wave.

The city’s own statistics show that homeless deaths peak in the summer.

In more ways than one, public policy is not keeping up with climate change, or the principles of equity and right to shelter.

A number of years ago, Toronto developed a clumsy system of calling heat alerts and opening 24 hour cooling centres. The alerts were marred with inconsistency related to the temperature/humidity criteria that would trigger an alert, and communications to the public were lukewarm.

The cooling centres themselves were sparse, poorly staffed and badly resourced. There was no outreach to bring people in. No free transportation to bring people in. No food, no offering of hats or sunscreen or refillable water bottles, no cots to lie down on, no health care on site, no activities to pass the time. Limiting access, only one of the six centres operated 24 hours a day.

Imagine leaving your sparse 3rd floor rooming house at the end of month. You've spent three days there in 33+ Celsius degree indoor temperatures. You only have change in your pocket and after a long hike on transit you arrive at a cooling centre that offers you a chair and maybe a granola bar.

This program operated in isolation from the real Toronto: an estimated 1,000 plus people without any shelter, thousands living in rental accommodation such as rooming houses and old high rises with no air conditioning. Many are isolated, racialized, elderly, dealing with poor mental and physical health, frail and hungry.

It gets worse. This year the city no longer calls heat alerts, instead relying on Environment Canada to do so. That’s fine. However, the city’s arbitrary decision to cancel cooling centres (instead of enhancing them) and replace them with a Heat Relief Network of 270 cool locations I can only see as a decision that fits with the definition of social murder.

The new Heat Relief Network locations include community centres, pools, splash pads, civic centres, drop-ins, private and non-profit organizations such as shopping malls and YMCA locations. They are open to the public during regular business hours. Puzzling is the inclusion of shelters and 24-hour respite centres in the Heat Relief Network because they are already at capacity.

There’s nothing wrong with promoting cool activities and spaces. The trouble is, it’s not an approach that meets the needs of the vulnerable.

I am often asked by keen students and entrepreneurs for advice on how they can develop an app to help with homelessness and poverty. I always tell them don’t do it, and here’s why.

The city developed an interactive map on their website to help those looking to cool off locate a Heat Relief Network location near them. It presumes literacy, fluency in English, computer access or a cell phone with a data plan. It also presumes a few other things.

I asked people on social media to use the map and see what came up.

For myself, I was directed to a 24-hour women’s drop-in. What if I wasn’t female?

A local politician who lives in Toronto’s Beach community was sent to Markham and Eglinton, a 24-minute car drive away.

An economist (who knows a thing or two about technology) wrote: “It tells me to go to a wading pool (no hours listed) 500 metres away or a library 660 metres away. The site is not user friendly on my phone; every time I touch a map it plus in a new address to search.”

A health advocate was sent to a swimming pool one hour and 3 bus transfers away.

An East-End resident was directed to go to Toronto Islands (the ferry costs $7.50 or $5 for seniors).

Another east ender was sent to an elementary school that has a swimming pool (limited hours), a splash pad and a library. Only one of those is a place with air conditioning, where a person without housing, swim trunks or Internet access could spend time.

A Junction area resident was sent to a location that would be a two-hour walk or 37 minute bike ride.

A downtown resident was directed to a public library that is closed and under construction.

A mental health advocate was directed to a splash pad and swimming pool, but points out that she doesn’t swim and can’t be in the sun. Also note that people on certain medications including psychiatric medications must avoid sun exposure.

Another resident wrote: "I'm picturing street affected people and vulnerable seniors showing up to share the neighbourhood splash pad with the local children. Very practical solution, Toronto." Many pointed out the discrimination they would face.

The Eaton Centre was a common referral site and people pointed out there are hardly any benches to sit on and the shopping mall is described as actively hostile to anyone that looks poor.

Another resident directed to the Eaton Centre writes: “Eaton Centre -- soooo, are we to fill the food court with elderly and homeless people, lining up to ask for water? And they’re going to spend hours there?”

This comment most likely reflects the frustrated reality of relying on technology: “Gimme a break you stupid thing! I entered my address 4 times and the program changed the address automatically to some other address. I'm gonna die of thirst while trying to figure how to work this thing!!” (angry emoji)

I learned a few things through this.

The city has a ton of splash pads (and people wonder why they close at 6pm?)

People love their libraries and no one suggested people would not be welcomed there.

The city, and specifically Toronto Public Health, Mayor John Tory and the board of health, are choosing to not grasp the social dimensions of poverty and climate change.

This comment on Twitter sums it up:  "#ClimateEmergency needs real solutions for our most vulnerable in cities."

Image: Pixabay

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