Escaping the heat without housing: How Victoria’s unhoused fared in the heat dome

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Advocates, experts say more inclusive climate adaptation is needed

Graphic of melting legislature building in Victoria. Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Ross Turchyn woke up to see his thermometer reading at 29°C. It was late June, around 7 a.m. The sun had not yet reached his tent.

Worried about the heat, he moved his belongings to a shady area and made a barrier with his gear to keep the rest of his possessions cool.

Turchyn knew that keeping his belongings cool was critical for that night’s sleep.

“That heat difference is massive by the time it comes to 10 o’clock at night when you’re trying to go to sleep and all your gear … has collected the heat,” said Turchyn.

Turchyn has lived on the streets since the summer of 2020. But he had never experienced heat like this before — the heat dome that swept Victoria this summer shattered records all across western Canada. In Victoria, it briefly reached 39°C on June 28. 

While the effects of the heat dome this summer may have been shocking, experts are confident that extreme heat and other severe weather events will increasingly become the norm. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this summer warns that heat waves will increase, even if global warming is kept to its goal temperature of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Heat has a cost. Between June 25 and July 1, B.C. recorded 526 heat-related deaths, including 97 on Vancouver Island. Scientists also estimate that over a billion sea creatures died due to the heat. 

Governments and service providers scrambled to meet the needs of unhoused people left vulnerable to the heat, like Turchyn, but experts and advocates say more needs to be done. As extreme heat events become common, they’re calling for proactive adaptation — but also work to address the factors that make some groups more vulnerable.

Responding to extreme heat

From June 25 to 28, Victoria saw daytime temperatures rising above 34°C, far exceeding the average seasonal high of just over 20°C. On June 25, B.C.’s health authorities declared heat alerts, prompting localized responses. The city and province worked to coordinate the response with BC Housing, who opened cooling centres specifically for the unhoused. In the province’s temporary housing, BC Housing gave tenants and employees masks, water, and fans.

Our Place Society, which provides services and runs a shelter for unhoused people, put out a call to the community that day, asking for donations of sunscreen, fans, and misting water bottles. They also set up tents in their courtyard for those who couldn’t fit inside their air-conditioned drop-in centre and distributed water. 

Cool Aid, another organization that provides supports to the unhoused, held their regularly scheduled hygiene hours, which allow people to take a cold shower. However, due to the pandemic, both organizations had limited space.

“Under ‘normal’ circumstances we (and other providers) would have been able to offer indoor spaces for people to cool off,” said a spokesperson for Cool Aid. “We did, however, support people inside our housing and shelters with water, sunscreen, hats, Freezies, and a place out of the sun when possible.”

Peer support workers associated with other unhoused support networks were also on the street providing water and sunscreen and checking in on people. 

Grant McKenzie, director of communications for Our Place, says that they were able to act quickly enough to muster an effective response.

“For us it was just another daily crisis that we have to rally together and deal with,” said McKenzie.

On June 27, the second-hottest day of the heat wave, the City of Victoria issued a statement on the heat warning. The city encouraged people to visit misting stations set up in Royal Athletic Park or visit a community centre to cool down. However, only half the city’s community centres identified in the statement are fully air conditioned and most are only open during business hours Monday to Friday. 

Governments and service providers also issued advice to people, mostly online, about how to stay cool during the heat wave.

“Make sure to drink more fluids than normal, especially water, regardless of your activity level, and do not wait until you are thirsty to have a drink,” says the city’s statement.

Challenges accessing and coordinating supports

Every day, when Turchyn packs up as required by the bylaw that prohibits people sheltering in parks between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., he loads more than his bodyweight worth of possessions into two carts. A bicycle cart carries about 100 lbs and a shopping cart holds the other 60 lbs. He pushes each cart with one hand.

During the 35°C-plus temperatures of the heat wave, Turchyn felt the journey to a cooling centre was impossible. 

“My best bet is to travel these outrageous distances from these different parks to get to the core services and all that I can do about it, as a homeless person, is stick to the shady side of the street,” said Turchyn.

In communities with no scheduled public transportation, Emergency Management BC provided transportation to help people access cooling centres. However, this did not apply in Victoria, where transit was still running.

Andréanne Doyon, assistant professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, spent one of the days during the heat dome avoiding the heat by browsing air-conditioned stores — an option that she says isn’t available for everyone. 

“While we talk about the importance of cooling centres … not everyone feels comfortable in different types of indoor spaces, and then not everyone was able to make it,” she said.

In addition to eliminating these barriers to accessing respite from the heat, advocates are calling for a more coordinated response.

Kelly Roth, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness (GVCEH), thinks the community managed to launch an effective response this summer. However, she says the response was a reactive not proactive one — something she’d like to see change in the future.

“What we would like to see …  is creating a response, rather than a reaction,” she said. “The homelessness response sector wants to be able to put into action immediate one, two, three, four, five, here are the things that we’re going to be doing to ensure people can access cooling stations and aren’t at risk of, literally, imminent death.”

Roth would like to see a few changes in order for the heat response to be more proactive. GVCEH recently agreed to act as the emergency weather response coordinator for BC Housing, but the funding only covers extreme weather in the winter. Roth wants this to be extended year-round.

This is already the case at Our Place, whose seasonal shelters, which were typically funded through the winter, have received year-round funding.

Roth would also like the province to support the Capital Regional District to allow a coordinated response throughout the entire area, not just in the city of Victoria. 

Bench covered by tree and burning. Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Climate adaptation

Climate change in B.C. will increase rising sea levels, forest fires, severe storms, and, of course, extreme heat. For these events, climate adaptation might include things like building dikes, increasing the area of coastal wetlands, and limiting loose vegetation next to buildings in fire-prone areas.

For extreme heat, Doyon suggests that the key in urban centres is increasing green space and water features. “Green and blue spaces” cool down cities, invite more diverse species, provide cleaner air, and offer shade. 

This summer, the Tyee reported that areas of Metro Vancouver with lower average incomes were hotter, due to less greenspace.

People living outside might feel the greatest effects of heat, but having lower income also affects people’s experience with heat in more subtle ways. Exposure to heat is also heightened for people living in lower-quality housing. 

“Those homes often don’t have air-conditioning, aren’t well-insulated, have poor-quality windows, might not have a lot of vegetation in and around the buildings, and so these folks wouldn’t have access to things that would help cool down their living spaces,” said Doyon. 

Just a few weeks before the heat wave, B.C. released their Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy. The report outlines some of the challenges B.C. is experiencing and will continue to experience as a result of the climate crisis, and identifies aspects of the province’s response. 

However, some say that adaptation should have been on B.C.’s radar a long time ago.

“For a province who is supposed to be sort of ahead of the game in terms of climate change response … [extreme heat response] was quite a big piece that was missing,” said Doyon.

In 2021-22, the province has committed to bolstering its extreme heat response for unhoused and housing-insecure people. In an email to the Martlet, the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said the specifics of this plan will be available in early 2022.

The report says the province will work with BC Housing in the next few years to develop a longer-term plan for heat and wildfire smoke adaptation for unhoused and housing-insecure people.

“BC Housing is concerned about the frequency of extreme heat incidents. In the past, these types of occurrences have been rare and not as severe,” said the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy in their email to the Martlet. “To address future heat waves, BC Housing is currently working with community and municipal partners to create a more robust extreme heat and wildfire smoke response for people who are experiencing homelessness and those who are vulnerable.”

The City of Victoria is also working on climate adaptation planning. Manager of Engagement Sheldon Johnson says city staff have been working to learn more about the impact of the heat dome and will be integrating their findings into the city’s forthcoming Climate Adaptation Plan. The plan will be voted on by City Council in 2022.

City Councillor Jeremy Loveday was worried about how the climate crisis is impacting unhoused people long before this summer. He was first motivated by the impacts of poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke.

“The system of care for the most vulnerable residents is broken, and I think that is very clear any time we have one of these emergency issues. Whether it’s the pandemic, or forest fire smoke, or the heat dome, the response is ad hoc,” said Loveday. 

Like Roth, Loveday wants the city and others to develop a more proactive plan that allows a coordinated response to be initiated during any season in the event of extreme weather. He would also like to see improvements in making services, like cooling stations, more welcoming to unhoused people.

Johnson says unhoused people will be integrated into the city’s climate adaptation planning process through its risk and vulnerability assessment process. The city will also be working with groups like Cool Aid and GVCEH.

However, while Loveday would like to see broader climate adaptation efforts, like planting specific trees, he emphasizes that unhoused people need to be consulted on issues that impact them.

“The bottom line is ‘nothing about us without us,’” he said. “Clearly we need to ask the people what would make them feel safe to access [heat mitigation] services.”

Dealing with root causes

Getting respite from extreme heat is critical for everyone. It might be more important for unhoused people, who may already be more likely to have health conditions that make them vulnerable.

“We see that impacts of climate change tend to disproportionately impact marginalized or equity-deserving communities, and heat waves is an example where we see that really come to light even more,” said Doyon.

Vulnerable groups in the city are more likely to suffer from the effects of climate change. Climate adaptation, according to experts and advocates, must address the circumstances that cause people to become vulnerable in the first place. In the case of the summer’s heat dome, this means addressing a lack of access to adequate housing.

For Our Place’s McKenzie, one of the most effective government measures during the heat wave was the fact that BC Housing has placed over 500 people in housing in the past 20 months. 

However, this isn’t necessarily a solution for everyone.

Turchyn has chosen not to accept offers of housing in the hotels purchased by the province because he has concerns about being in close proximity to substance use, an ongoing province-wide concern that is more visible in recently housed populations. Despite this, he maintains that housing would be the most helpful response to extreme heat for him. He says that increasing shelter allowance rates received by people on social assistance to at least the market value of housing would allow him to afford housing that he feels comfortable in.

A report on homelessness prepared for the City of Victoria this summer concurs with Turchyn. The report found that income assistance rates do not cover the cost of rent and thereby put people at risk of homelessness. 

Loveday emphasizes the importance of creating systemic change: treating housing as a human right and taking strong climate action to mitigate and adapt. This is important, he notes, because these challenges are so tightly wound together.

“Equity needs to be at the centre of climate policy, as the climate crisis is just going to compound the existing inequity of our society,” said Loveday. “That means we need to use the opportunity of the investment in solutions to undo some of the inequality that already exists, and look at policies that will have positive impacts on the multiple crises we’re facing.”

Until then, Turchyn and others will continue to navigate extreme weather conditions and make the best out of a response system that experts and advocates say still has many gaps.