The Heat Is On To Help The Homeless
It's no surprise that summer wins hands-down as Canada’s favourite season. Canadians enjoy the great outdoors and when it comes to summer amusement, running, hiking and biking, watersports, and camping are top activities.
However, being outdoors in the heat and sun is not everyone’s idea of fun. Particularly elder homeless men who are already under significant stress because of challenging living conditions. Adding unbearable heat for long periods of time can trigger troublesome health issues.
Health Canada recently announced that the number of extremely hot days per year is expected to more than double in the coming decades. In the last two years, 2020 and 2021 combined, there have been 61 days when temperatures were at or above 30 degrees in Toronto. Summer accounts for over 74 percent of these extreme highs.
Summer also accounts for the largest number of homeless deaths, though winter is often perceived to be the harshest season for the homeless population.
From January 2017, when the City of Toronto started tracking homeless deaths, through December 2021, there have been 678 homeless deaths, a figure experts suggest is low due to under-reporting. 183 homeless deaths occurred in July, August and September – the largest of any three-month period.
Of those who died homeless in Toronto, 75 percent were male, and 27 percent were age 60 or older.
While not wholly responsible for these deaths, extreme heat plays a factor in failing health and wellbeing, especially for older adults with chronic illnesses, medications that interfere with the body’s cooling mechanisms, social isolation, and poverty.
Water is essential to the body, and is especially important to prevent dehydration on very hot days. When a person who is homeless experiences dehydration, it can worsen preexisting health conditions and even trigger heat stroke.
Fresh water is both a basic necessity and a luxury for elder homeless men.
Earlier this month, CBC News reported that only 60 percent of Toronto’s public water fountains were open during a recent heat wave. “Some 245 water fountains weren’t turned on,” something advocates say, “spells a bigger problem for those who rely on public amenities.”
Summertime can bring extra challenges for people with diabetes, especially if they are homeless and facing barriers to health care.
Extreme heat may make it harder for people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar levels under control and leaves them at increased risk for developing heat exhaustion.
“If a diabetic person becomes dehydrated, their blood glucose levels will rise,” says Dr. Marwan Hamaty, an endocrinologist with the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Hamaty adds, “This can lead to frequent urination, which leads to further dehydration and even higher blood sugar levels – a vicious cycle.”
Sun-related Illnesses –
Extreme hot weather can lead to swelling, rashes, cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke and cause existing medical conditions to worsen, potentially even leading to death.
Elderly people are particularly at risk because their bodies have lost their ability to adjust well to sudden or prolonged temperature changes. Elder homeless men are even more likely to have chronic medical conditions and be taking medication that may interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
Haven Toronto, the only drop-in centre in Canada dedicated to elder homeless men, provides clients with the basic necessities to beat the heat and survive the summer. The air-conditioned facilities are open every day, all year, providing clients with access to fresh water, showers, laundry, meals, and emergency clothing.
The downtown Toronto drop-in centre reduces barriers to health care, with onsite nurses, counsellors and support care workers, each available without an appointment.
In recent months, Haven Toronto’s nurses have seen a surge in clients in search of support, including diabetes management, which has tripled.
To help clients prepare for extreme weather, Haven Toronto provides weather-ready Care Kits which are free to elder homeless men thanks to donations from the community through the drop-in centre’s online store, www.shophaventoronto.ca.