Some Toronto history on the impact of heat on vulnerable populations
Over 10 years ago, during a summer heat wave, activists pleaded with the City of Toronto to alter their formula for calling heat alerts so that alerts could be called early enough to provide people relief. We pleaded that they not wait as they did several times and call the alert on a Sunday when both social service agencies and media are down to skeleton staff; we begged them to relocate the one 24-hour cooling centre out of the Metro Hall lobby to a more comfortable and accessible location; we begged them to open more than one 24-hour cooling centre for a city of 2.5 million people; we begged them to provide something more substantial than a cereal bar to people using the cooling centres; and we begged them to modify the City of Toronto bylaw that makes third- and fourth-floor windows in rooming and boarding homes restricted from opening no more than 100 mm (3 inches).
In addition, Michael Shapcott led the campaign to identify longer-term solutions which could include heat island mitigation strategies such as green roofs, the development of a maximum temperature bylaw (similar to the minimum temperature bylaw we have in winter that landlords have to comply with), and energy conservation measures for low-income housing. These could include energy rebates for landlords who install air-conditioning and pilot programs to that effect.
Despite ongoing community and professionals' expressions of concern for vulnerable populations, the city's response to a climate emergency remained lukewarm. The heat alert formula did not change, there were no creative or innovative programs (not even free transit on heat alert days) and the city continued to reluctantly and stingily operate one 24-hour cooling centre at Metro Hall where people could sit at a table and still only got a cereal bar there. In one telling situation the cooling centre was opened on day 1 of the heat wave, but without staff.
In Parkdale alone we estimated that the number of people at elevated heat risk was 1,200. By and large they do not have the means, or the energy, or the motivation to go to the lobby of a government building to sit and receive a cereal bar. The one innovative program that was operated -- a heat pilot program at Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre -- was defunded.
I'm telling you this history because the lack of innovation has meant that thousands of people were left sweltering in hot rooming houses and high-rises, in some cases with room temperatures above 37 C. The people suffering and at elevated heat risk include people living in poverty, the frail elderly, persons experiencing serious mental health or health challenges, people on psychiatric medications, people living in isolation, with mobility issues, under-housed and homelessness.
There were at least five heat-related deaths during the 2005 heat wave in Toronto, primarily rooming house tenants. Both the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and the Toronto board of health requested the chief coroner consider holding an inquest into the heat-related death of James Howell. One year later, the coroner advised there would be no inquest because there was nothing to be learned. Despite repeated requests to the coroner's office, they would not issue that decision to us in writing.
Who knows how many have died since then? It is widely understood that Ontario and Toronto lag in their tracking of injury and death due to extreme heat.
The recent film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code is a blunt warning to learn from our history. Over 700 people died in the 1995 Chicago heat wave.
Flash forward to 2019
The City of Toronto cancelled both the calling of a heat alert and the entire cooling centre program.
Instead, it created a "city-wide heat relief through resilience strategy," whatever that means. It included a web-based network of 300 organizations, shopping malls, community sites like libraries, swimming pools and splash pads where people could go, if they were able, and if they were open, and if they had a bathing suit.
Broad scientific research has shown that the greatest life-saving measure in an extreme heat emergency is access to air conditioning, not splash pads. Yes it may raise hydro costs, but we are not talking about people who use cappuccino machines, food processors, hair dryers, computers, and TV/VCR/DVDs. In some cases we are talking about people who don't even have a fridge or stove, a washer or dryer. Poor and vulnerable populations tend not to be energy hogs.
City council's recent declaration of a climate emergency is meaningless without measures to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
Extreme poverty, full shelters and respite sites necessitate that.
Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.
Image: Cathy Crowe
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.