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Vancouver homeless face long, hot summer

By Bryan Mc Govern

For Gilbert John Randall, living on the streets has meant suffering terrible sunburns.
BRYAN MC GOVERN, 24 HOURS

For Gilbert John Randall, living on the streets has meant suffering terrible sunburns. BRYAN MC GOVERN, 24 HOURS

The impact of El Nino and summer temperatures predicted by experts to be even hotter than normal leave the most vulnerable of Vancouver in danger of suffering heat strokes — and the city and support agencies scrambling for cool solutions.

The city outlines a cold weather shelter strategy on its website under the homeless and low-income resource page. But stretches of sweltering temperatures can be just as deadly for the homeless.

“We don’t have official summer shelters; we tend to rely on public facilities for people to get cool,” said Ethel Whitty director of homelessness for the city of Vancouver.

She said the libraries have become a hub for homeless people to stay in an air conditioned space.

But according to Shayne Williams, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Society, sometimes these environments aren’t the best option for homeless people seeking relief.

“The people that we see on a regular basis don’t feel welcomed or comfortable in what’s kind of called community spaces,” said Williams. “Heat stroke is very common amongst the folk we see as well as sunburns.”

HealthLink BC says heat-related illness can lead — in severe cases — to heat stroke, also known as sunstroke — a life-threatening medical emergency.

For Gilbert John Randall, living on the streets has meant suffering terrible sunburns — forcing him to swear to never remove his shirt and hat during the summer.

Randall, 59, said he has seen abuse and people stealing at shelters and that’s one of the reasons he doesn’t go to the centres that could help him during the summer.

“We can support and provide water and cool spaces, but they pretty much have to get themselves there … we don’t have a way to go and gather people up and bring them there, it really is up to them to get themselves to those spaces,” said Whitty, who is also the director of the Carnegie Centre.

A hotter-than-standard spring is already in motion for the region with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration having predicted March, April and May of this year to be “above average” for the Metro Vancouver region.

According to Faron Anslow, Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium climatologist, warm conditions cause the body to have to work hard to cool itself. The effects of heat can be cumulative if insufficient time in cool conditions is available in consecutive 24-hour periods.

“There are forces at play that indicate it will be a warmer-than-normal summer,” Anslow said. The Pacific Climate Consortium in Victoria works with the Metro Vancouver board on providing analysis and projections for this and the next 50 summers.

“With warmer-than-normal temperature forecast, a heat wave on top of that could lead to extreme conditions for days or up to a week,” said Anslow.

A weekend in June of last year saw 64 new temperature records set across B.C., with the month becoming the second hottest month on record for Vancouver according to Matt MacDonald, meteorologists with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“When the forecasted temperatures is expected to be 32 degrees or above for two days in a row, historically that’s when there’s been a spike in illness related to heat,” said MacDonald. 

GROUPS HAND OUT SUNSCREEN, WATER

The city of Vancouver responds to the rising temperatures during the summer with air-conditioned centres and library availability.

“We are one of the community centres in the city, of about 10 community centres, that do have air [conditioners] … the gym is completely air conditioned so we open that up and put tables and chairs in there,” said Whitty about the Carnegie Community Centre, of which she is the director. “People really need a place to get a break, get a relief from the heat.”

“Last summer, we had big coolers setup in our front lobby with paper cups so that people could get hydrated.”

“We got a pretty strong partnership with the Vancouver Coastal Health and in the Fraser region we got a street medical clinic,” said Shayne Williams, executive director for the Lookout Emergency Society. Williams’ group hands out sunscreen and bottled water.

Michelle Clausius with Covenant House Vancouver, a support group focused on youth, said with the summer time there’s an increase in homeless youth out on the streets.

Her group collects summer-specific items like sunscreen, bottles of water and clothing.

There are 10 community centres in Vancouver that offer air-conditioned spaces: Britannia Community Services Centre, Carnegie Community Centre, Evelyne Saller Centre, Gathering Place Community Centre, Hillcrest Centre, Kerrisdale Community Centre, Mount Pleasant Community Centre, Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre and the West End Community Centre.