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Toronto’s heat-relief network not enough to cool city’s most vulnerable, health and outreach workers say
August 26, 2019
Samantha McCabe

Sunlight beats down on the pavement of Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. Throughout the square, people sit on the ground, framed by only thin slivers of shade.

As usual, they have coffee cups beside them to collect change, but today, many are asking passersby for something else: a bottle of water.

Homeless people, more than anyone else, are vulnerable to the elements -- a concern the city of Toronto is familiar with, as every winter those left out of crowded shelters face plunging nighttime temperatures. But street nurses, outreach workers and others say that the city’s strategy to address the issue, while evolving, is undermined by a misunderstanding of what it’s like to be homeless in summer weather.

This year, Toronto’s City Council and Board of Health decided to close seven “cooling centres,” air-conditioned buildings that were open on days the city issued hot-weather warnings, which occurs when two or more consecutive days reach temperatures of 31 C or warmer. One location was open 24 hours a day. The centres had been operational since 2002, employing some staff who were formerly homeless, and offering water, snacks and transit tokens for people to get to the centres and back.

Instead, they have continued on with a pilot project launched last summer: a “heat relief network,” which is a system of existing public spaces anyone can find via an online map, which the city says is based on models used in other large urban centres such as New York and Arizona.

The heat-relief network does not create new, dedicated support locations, but rather increases the visibility of existing resources.

“I have no problem with the city advertising more cooling spaces,” said Cathy Crowe, a long-time street nurse, activist and educator. But she called the closing of the centres “beyond frustrating" and said many of the network’s 300-plus locations -- such as malls, community centres, splash pads and public pools -- are problematic for housing-vulnerable populations.

Joyce Rankin, the clinical manager of homeless outreach organization Street Health’s Dundas location, has been working with downtown Toronto’s most vulnerable people for a decade. She dubs heat the “silent killer” on the streets.

Fourteen-hour days spent exposed to scorching heat presents a long list of hazards, of which dehydration is just the beginning. Extended exposure to hot weather exacerbates existing cardiac and respiratory problems. It can also be a dangerous complicating factor for those with substance-abuse issues or on medications.

And it’s getting worse as climate change contributes to more extreme weather patterns and urban heat climbs.

John Nepean, who recently secured a spot with Toronto Community Housing but was homeless for years before that, was recently walking around the city on a sweltering day. He spotted a splash pad -- the likes of which are advertised on the heat relief network -- and took his socks and shoes off to wade in.

A woman nearby called the police.

“They told me I either leave or I could be arrested for trespassing,” Mr. Nepean said.

There’s an urgent need to provide better care, says Roxanne Danielson, who works with homeless and formerly homeless people as a member of the Inner City Family Health Team.

“We can’t have just pools and splash pads where people are just getting kicked off by police. We need designated spaces for people.”

The city’s goal is to better serve people by maximizing the use of publicly available cool space. “The intent is to continue to expand the network to provide heat relief to residents and visitors all summer and not just during, heat alerts,” according to Gayle Bursey, director of healthy public policy for Toronto Public Health.

Mr. Nepean described the difficulties he faced during his long stint of homelessness. He said that the cooling centres used to be the friendly, open-door place to go.

“You’re not judged on what type of person you are,” he said of the cooling centres. “That makes a difference.”

According to Ms. Bursey, the cooling centres were “not well-used by the intended population.” She did not elaborate about the level of use.

A 2018 memo from the city’s Medical Officer of Health notes that during Toronto’s “uncharacteristically cool summer” in 2017, the cooling centres were only open on seven occasions, but still saw 2,714 visits across those days.

At a workshop hosted by Toronto Public Health that same summer, advocates for the facilities agreed underuse was an issue, but stressed the importance of maintaining centres where people could access food and health care and would not be pressured to leave. They further argued the city should work to make people aware of this resource.

After what they saw as a productive listening session, the move to axe the cooling centres two years later comes as a surprise.

This year, Toronto has increased its budget for hot weather response, to $118,000 from $85,000 last year. More than half of that budget -- $65,000 -- was transferred to the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to pay for additional staff who have experienced homelessness: On heat-warning days, Fred Victor Centre has been contracted to send teams of two to each of Toronto’s four 24-hour respite sites to patrol the nearby streets and supply people with information and water. Respite sites offer overflow spots as a response to full shelters.

This summer, there are 429 spots across respite sites, down from 515 last summer and way down from this past February, when the city provided 805 respite site spots after a hard push for more accommodations during harsh winter temperatures.

Those 429 spots are regularly at almost full capacity alongside an overburdened shelter system.

At shelters, the city has added 351 beds since February as part of its spring transition plan, but when the lost respite spots are accounted for, the overall number of beds has dropped by 125.

“Generally, people know what services are out there,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Christian charitable organization Sanctuary. “The issue is there’s not more services by and large, [and] that everything is full. So what are you actually connecting people to?”

There is no long-term solution to getting people out of these outdoor conditions, Mr. Cook said, making outreach difficult.

At the end of the summer, Toronto Public Health says they will review the successes and challenges of the heat relief network. They will then report to the Board of Health and propose a “long-term strategy for the city,” according to a spokesperson.

Advocates say the root of the issue is obvious: The lack of affordable housing in one of Canada’s most expensive cities.

“The really important piece is to understand that we’re in a climate crisis, and this is only going to get worse,” Ms. Danielson said.