An unprecedentedly cold winter proved difficult for the homeless population of Barrie, and forced most shelters to operate at maximum capacity for most of the season. With temperatures expected to rise to unbearable levels this summer, it appears as though demand for shelter will remain high.
Executive director at the Salvation Army Bayside Mission, Doug Lewis, says as early as May, staff had to put extra mats on the floor at the men’s shelter to accommodate homeless people looking to get out of the extreme heat.
“It’s early for that — we’ve done it in July and August, but I don’t recall us having to do it in May,” he said.
Joy Thompson, executive director at Joyce Cope House, a women’s shelter in Barrie, says she has not seen a decrease in demand for shelter either.
“Our 27-bed shelter was at capacity and over-capacity on numerous occasions this winter, and for the first time ever, it is at capacity at this time of year as well,” Thompson said.
Thompson says this is due to the “unprecedentedly hot and dry summer,” Simcoe County is already experiencing.
“You know people tend to think that the warm weather comes and that people find seasonal rooms or sleep outside, but what people forget I think is that just as acute extreme cold is a huge health risk for people with compromised health and chronic health conditions, particularly respiratory conditions, actually, extreme heat and humidity is as serious of a health issue for the homeless population,” she said.
Lewis says over the years, he has seen several people at the Bayside Mission shelter suffering the consequences of prolonged sun and heat exposure.
“We have had situations where men have come to us, where you can tell they are experiencing the effects of sun sickness and heat stroke, too much sunburn, those kinds of things. You know they’re wandering the streets and they get dehydrated and delirious, so they come to us and we do what we can.”
Lewis says on a few occasions, they have had to call paramedics to assist and transport the individuals to hospital to be treated.
Health risks and heat island effect
Brenda Armstrong, program manager for the health hazards/vector-borne disease programs at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, says homeless people often experience compromised health as is.
“People who are inadequately housed or homeless have risk of other medical conditions so illness, premature death from infectious disease, cardiovascular conditions, respiratory diseases and it’s often compounded by mental illness and addiction use.”
Armstrong says this compromised health status, coupled with lack of access to safe food, water and shelter, make homeless people uniquely at risk to extreme heat events. “They can experience dehydration, malnutrition and develop cardiovascular conditions.”
Armstrong notes that unlike in the winter where the effects of cold are very acute and instant, the dangers in the summertime arise after prolonged exposure to heat. She says it becomes particularly dangerous when it is hot during the day without reprieve overnight.
According to a risk assessment study conducted by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, this is exactly what is expected to happen this summer. The study shows temperatures in the area are predicted to increase through the day and night.
Armstrong says this is going to impact the severity of the heat waves that the county will experience.
“Climate change is going to mean that we have more severe extreme heat events, they are going to be more frequent, and they are going to last longer,” said Armstrong.
According to Armstrong, a phenomenon known as ‘heat island effect’ is also a large concern for the homeless population as temperatures rise. “The more concrete there is in an area, it actually increases the temperature in the area because what happens is the concrete can actually absorb the heat throughout the day, and then releases it, so you don’t get that cooling off reprieve that can happen at night.”
Armstrong says mapping shows the majority of “heat islands” are in concrete-laden areas where there is a higher proportion of homeless population. This is primarily due to their need to access services in urban centres.
Currently, there are no programs in the summer like the “out of the cold” initiative which operates throughout the winter to offer additional support to homeless people during colder months.
In the summertime, the responsibility of supporting people trying to escape the extreme heat falls to homeless shelters like Joyce Cope House and the Salvation Army Bayside Mission.
“All we can do is the mat program, so on these types of nights when it is too hot, they can come and at least be comfortable and get some kind of rest and proper food and water,” says Lewis.
The affordable housing crisis
While it is difficult to know for sure how many people are homeless within the community, Lewis says the most recent study showed approximately 400 people are homeless within Barrie.
Lewis and Thompson both point to the lack of affordable housing as the No. 1 contributing factor to homelessness in the city.
“You would have to be trying hard not to notice that homelessness is an issue of economics, and it’s about the lack of affordability for people to rent affordable housing,” said Thompson.
Thompson says in Simcoe County, people are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to housing. She says the housing boom in Toronto is driving costs up, and with almost no affordable housing stock in the area, it leaves people in a very vulnerable position.
“When you have almost zero affordable housing stock, you know the vacancy rate in Barrie is very very low, and the availability of actual affordable housing is zero unless it’s something like public housing, and the wait list is very long — it’s clear we need better solutions,” she said.
Thompson says another issue unique to the area which affects homelessness, are seasonal motel rentals. She explains during the winter months, many low-income individuals and families are housed at motels using a government subsidy.
When summer rolls around, they are often kicked out to make room for tourists.
“They have every right to do so because they’re considered seasonal rentals,” said Thompson. Without affordable housing to place these people into, they are often left without a home.
“So I guess when I say we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, the rock is Toronto, and the hard place is Muskoka,” she said.
How can you help?
Thompson says in the short term, there are things people within the community can do in order to offer support to the homeless population. She says sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hats, personal care items and new summer clothes are always needed at shelters. Further, she says individuals can support community organizations by attending fundraising events and helping to spread the word.
Lewis says if you see a homeless person on the street, it isn’t always a good idea to give them money. However, you can offer to buy them food or a gift card to a restaurant. Additionally, you can refer them to social agencies who can provide them with food, housing and other supports.
Ultimately, though, Thompson says the homeless population needs more concrete solutions. “We need solutions where every level of government comes together and look at what support is needed,” she said.