Wildfires result in smoke and mirrors from politicians, not action

 Government response to the health hazards caused by wildfire smoke is just another example of how people who are homeless continued to be ignored.
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I honestly did not predict that smoke from Canadian wildfires would be the latest addition to the challenges people who are homeless or poorly housed across Canada must suffer through.

It reminds me why I introduced a chapter in my memoir Knapsack with a description of the post-apocalyptic movie The Road. The movie opens with an outdoor night shot suggesting fire, explosions, and unsafe air while a family remains sheltered in their home, surviving on their last cans of food. Promotion for the movie mirrors the situation today:

“The world is gray and getting quickly grayer as more and more things die off.”

It’s hard to not see the housing landscape as gray.

Homelessness is now so severe that several municipalities are declaring homelessness a state of emergency yet there are no signs of significant political action to achieve the housing solution. In fact, homelessness is only growing and Canadian researchers such as Dr. Cheryl Forchuk have demonstrated that homeless count estimates, for example the widely reported fact that 235,000 people are homeless in a year, is likely a serious underreporting. Worrisome, the research cautions that some populations, including people with dementia and developmental disabilities, are more susceptible to becoming homeless since the pandemic.

Shelters are full across the country. Outdoor living, sometimes in the visible forms of encampments that look like refugee camps, has grown and for the most part city officials such as those in Toronto continue to misinform the public and media suggesting shelter options are available.

Smoke and mirrors: an expression referencing a magician’s trick, references misleading information that is intended to make you believe that something is true, or being done when it is not. I liken it to negative propaganda. Or lies.

Government intentional neglect is today referred to as social murder and Toronto’s monthly homeless memorial is a testament to that. In June, 12 names were added to the memorial.

Canada’s housing strategy? Another case of smoke and mirrors, notes Professor David Hulchanski.

Periodically, over my career I have added what I call ‘hotspots’ to the cluster of homeless issues we need to advocate on. These have ranged from the clusters of freezing/outdoor deaths to what I call the plagues: tuberculosis, Norwalk virus, Strep A and more recently COVID. Then a literal new hotspot came along: climate change.

Twenty years ago, street nurses realized that extremes in weather were disproportionately impacting the health of people we were seeing, not unlike the unequal impact on impoverished populations around the world.

In 2019 in “Anatomy of a Heat Wave” I described the known impacts of climate change, specifically extreme heat on vulnerable populations. They included:

In 1995, Chicago suffered a violent heat wave that resulted in the deaths of over 700 citizens. Many were seniors, African American and living in public housing.
The 2003 heat wave in Europe killed 27,000.
In 2005 at least six Toronto residents who lived in scorching rooming and boarding houses died during a heat wave.

We now know that the most critical public health measures that can save lives in a climate emergency are early warning systems, the immediate opening of neighbourhood-based 24/7 relief centres, outreach to vulnerable populations including the unhoused, seniors, high-rise and rooming house residents. Are we doing this? No.

Toronto Public Health, once a progressive bastion of public health has, I’m sorry to say, stepped back into the dark ages, even though in 2019 the city voted to declare a climate emergency and accelerate efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In 2019 Toronto cancelled its operation of cooling centres for the unhoused and vulnerable replacing the centres with a Heat Relief Network, a doublethink term that encourages those in need including the unhoused to go to one of 500 locations that includes shelters, drop-ins, shopping malls, splash pads, swimming pools or libraries. Smoke and mirrors. I say that for a few reasons: the suggested shelters are full, the Heat Relief Network sites do not operate 24/7, nor are they suitable in any fashion as a substitute for people’s safe and cool shelter needs.

The need is extreme. In 2022 the Canadian Press reported that half a million Torontonians live in apartments without air conditioning. I’m one of them.

In recent years wildfires, now proven to be linked to climate change, have encroached on the health and safety of communities, leading to the loss of homes and displacement – something that homeless people know a lot about.

The summer of 2023 began with widespread air quality warnings from the smoke, one in which Toronto was declared as having the worst air quality in the world. IQAir states that air pollution has caused 2,500 deaths in Toronto in 2023 and it’s only July.

Wildfire smoke layered onto an already hot summer is the latest double whammy climate hotspot. Canadian climate activist  Tzeporah Berman, author of an article in The Guardian: “Canada is on fire and big oil is the arsonist” sums up the catastrophe in a Democracy Now interview:

500 wildfires in Canada.
200 are out of control and could burn the entire summer.
120,000 people have been evacuated or have been ‘unhoused.’
Smoke is choking people.

It’s front-page news. It’s international news.

Similar to extreme heat and cold weather emergencies, smoke hurts some people more than others. As Rafi Aaron, a spokesperson for Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, stated the current heat wave, worsened by smoke, impacts Toronto’s homeless population more than other groups, calling it an “emergency situation.”

What are our health protection bodies doing?

Public health science has its head in the sand.

Environment and Climate Change Canada does not recognize that unhoused, unsheltered people are at greater risk for smoke exposure.

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care emergency management media statement does not reference homeless people’s risk. They caution lists of groups at risk including people who work outside but refrain from saying the words ‘homeless’ or ‘living outside.’

Statements on Canada’s other provinces and territories public health websites similarly avoid identifying the homeless population as a risk group. Who to worry about most is made clear in this BC video that emphasizes who we should be caring about. You won’t hear the word homeless.

Toronto Public Health is similarly neglectful. In early July, in a Board of Health presentation called “Healthy Summer,” Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Finkelstein dispassionately outlined the city’s response, stressing wildfire smoke is a new issue for the city to deal with. Of note, there is no mention of wildfire smoke in the city’s Healthy Summer written report. It covered food safety, water safety, West Nile and Lyme disease, rabies, extreme heat but not wildfire smoke. My suspicion is they got caught unprepared and at the last moment inserted wildfire smoke in response to my written correspondence to the board and media by prominent activist and frontline worker Lorraine Lam.

Similar to other levels of government Toronto Public Health, while pointing out that yes people need homes, ignores that unhoused people, who cannot access a safe, clean air shelter are a population at risk from wildfire smoke. Nor do they argue that research has shown this population already faces other smoke risk factors such as a higher incidence of lung and heart disease. Nor do they acknowledge the truth that shelters are full, and housing is not forthcoming for years. However, when asked by a board member if the public should mask when outdoors, Dr. Finkelstein said the best protection is to “stay indoors… consider that when the air deteriorates – going inside is the best way to reduce their risk.”

With only a few questions and expressions of concern, the Board of Health in Canada’s largest city concluded their meeting with a motion to:

“assemble the current public health advice and evidence in response to wildfire smoke into a Toronto Public Health Wildfire Smoke Response Strategy.”

Fact: Wildfires have been impacting the health of homeless people in other parts of the country since 2018.

The big news of the day: select swimming pool hours were extended for the duration of the heat alert.

Smoke and mirrors.

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