Blog: The Effect of Extreme Weather on People Experiencing Homelessness
By Amanda Labonte
Changes to our climate drastically impact the severity and duration of extreme weather events. Events in 2021 included flooding, out-of-control wildfires, severe storms producing large hail, and extreme temperature fluctuations as low as -51.9 °C to extreme heat, where temperatures reached 49.6 °C under the ‘heat dome.’ (1) People who are experiencing homelessness are affected by these changes to a greater extent, are exposed to greater risk, and should be considered when examining the impacts of climate change on people (2; 3). With temperatures on the rise globally and estimates of extreme heat events doubling over the next 30 years, these events are a serious threat during the summer months. (4)
High temperatures can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or death. (4) Symptoms of heat exhaustion can often be misperceived as intoxication by the general public and sometimes by first responders which can delay critical medical attention as it can cause confusion, vomiting, and a lack of coordination (4) for people experiencing homelessness this is a common barrier.
The Government of Canada recommends trying to stay cool and drinking lots of fluids to stay safe during extreme heat events. (4) But what if a person does not have access to air conditioning, water to take cooling showers or clean drinking water? (4) For many of Edmonton’s population who live in low-income housing or who are experiencing homelessness, this is the case.
People who live in low-income housing or who are experiencing homelessness have fewer resources and less access to cooling methods, the social stigmatization of experiencing homelessness can prevent access to public spaces that are air-conditioned (5) such as libraries, malls, LRT stations, or recreation centres.
The City of Edmonton has installed 13 drinking taps throughout the city that are accessible 24/7 to provide access for hydration. (6) The City “monitors for dangerous health conditions,” such as those tied to events of extreme weather, particularly cold weather events. (6) The City of Edmonton has established the “Supporting Vulnerable People During Extreme Weather Conditions” the purpose of which is “ensuring a systematic response to Extreme Weather Conditions in order to safeguard the health and lives of Edmontonians who are Vulnerable People. The response will be aligned with and supportive of existing community response protocols and will result in a responsible, reliable, and transparent process for decision-making.” (7) The challenge is that the focus for many of the policies developed for extreme weather tend to focus on extreme cold, while important in a province where long and cold winters are experienced, a more robust or consistent plan and implementation for extreme heat is something that needs consideration.
Places like the Okananagan last year and more recently cities in the Vancouver area have developed, opened, or made accessible ‘cooling centres’ during their extreme heat events. The City of Toronto however, has implemented a hot weather response from May 15 until September 30 activating the Heat Relief Network (8). Included in the network are “shelters and 24-hour respite sites that are available to individuals experiencing homelessness.” (8) The City of Toronto has made this a standing response as previously the cooling centres were only activated during periods of extreme heat, however, this was “not a sufficient response to minimize health risks.” (8) The City of Toronto has an Interactive Map for people to find places to cool off and places to access water during high temperatures. The barrier here would be if a person does not have access to technology or the knowledge that such a resource exists. Work still needs to be done to ensure this is easily accessible to the most vulnerable.
Extreme storms such as those that include heavy rainfall, damaging winds, or hail are also of concern for people experiencing homelessness. (9) It is important to recognize that during extreme events such as flooding, fire, wind, or hail, people who make their homes in spaces and structures that are not secure often lose their homes. (10) For people who are close to experiencing homelessness, extreme weather can be a tipping point, (10) this can have devastating impacts.
It is important to create policies and procedures that are inclusive and timely. Not everyone has access to the resources and means to ensure their physical and mental safety during extreme weather events, including heat waves. Policy and procedure development should include informing the public to reduce stigmatization of the populations that experience social isolation so they are no longer barred, removed or restricted from public spaces they may need access to ensure their safety. We can do better.
 Government of Canada. (2021, December 21). Canada’s top 10 weather stories of 2021 https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/top-ten-weather-stories/2021.html
 Kidd, S. A., Greco, S., & McKenzie, K. (2020). Global Climate Implications for Homelessness: A Scoping Review. Journal of Urban Health-Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-020-00483-1
 Bezgrebelna, M., McKenzie, K., Wells, S., Ravindran, A., Kral, M., Christensen, J., Stergiopoulos, V., Gaetz, S., & Kidd, S. A. (2021). Climate Change, Weather, Housing Precarity, and Homelessness: A Systematic Review of Reviews. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(11), 5812. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18115812
 Government of Canada. (2022). Infographic: Staying Healthy in the Heat. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/publications/healthy-living/infographic-staying-healthy-heat.html
 Fraser Health. (2022). Extreme heat and people experiencing homelessness. https://www.fraserhealth.ca/health-topics-a-to-z/sun-safety/extreme-heat-and-people-experiencing-homelessness–a-primer-for-community-organizations
 City of Edmonton. (2022, June 29). Extreme weather response. https://www.edmonton.ca/programs_services/emergency_preparedness/extreme-weather
 Citizen Services. (2019, July 10). Supporting vulnerable people during extreme weather conditions. City Policy. https://www.edmonton.ca/sites/default/files/public-files/C620.pdf?cb=1658770910
 City of Toronto. (2022, May 30). City of Toronto reminds residents to stay safe in hot weather, find a cool space in the Heat Relief Network. https://www.toronto.ca/news/city-of-toronto-reminds-residents-to-stay-safe-in-hot-weather-find-a-cool-space-in-the-heat-relief-network/#:~:text=During%20the%20summer%20season%2C%20from,activate%20its%20Heat%20Relief%20Network.
 Cusack, L., van Loon, A., Kralik, D., Arbon, P., & Gilbert, S. (2013). Extreme weather-related health needs of people who are homeless. Australian Journal of Primary Health, 19(3), 250–255. https://doi.org/10.1071/PY12048
 Every, D. (2017, September 8). Extreme weather makes homelessness even worse. Here’s how we can help. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/extreme-weather-makes-homelessness-even-worse-heres-how-we-can-help-82758