British Columbia is experiencing more and hotter extreme heat days as the climate changes

Although our region has historically been temperate, we are in some ways less prepared for extreme events than traditionally hotter areas of the province - and therefore at risk.  Each year residents, particularly our most marginalized, die due to extreme heat-related events.

Summer heat can pose serious health risks to people experiencing homelessness or living in precarious housing, especially those with pre-existing heart, lung, or mental health conditions. The good news is there are ways to prevent heat-related illnesses. This section provides tools and resources related to extreme heat response for those who work with people experiencing homelessness or in low-income buildings.

Identifying who is at risk

Everyone is at risk of heat-illnesses during extreme temperatures; however, homeless people and social housing tenants are at increased risk because they often have fewer resources to stay cool.

Groups at higher risk include:

  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Older people, infants and young children
  • People with chronic illnesses (such as breathing difficulties, heart conditions, or psychiatric illnesses) and people on certain medications (including some psychiatric medication)
  • People who work or exercise in the heat
  • People living alone
  • People without access to air conditioning

Signs and symptoms

Heat-related illness is the result of the body gaining heat faster than it can cool itself down. It can lead to weakness, disorientation, exhaustion. In severe cases, it can lead to heatstroke, which is a medical emergency (911 should be called). It can also lead to worsening of heart or lung conditions. Review HealthLink BC’s Heat illness page to recognize signs, symptoms and learn what to do if you think someone is suffering from a heat-related illness. 

Communicating with homeless clients

In Canada, more people are dying from extreme heat than all other natural disasters combined, but many people are not aware of the dangers related to extreme heat. Organizations that work with homeless clients should ensure proactive and effective communication with clients, volunteers, and staff about the risks of extreme heat, the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, and how to stay safe in hot weather.

What to do:

  • Before the hot season, ensure that all volunteers and staff are aware of the risks, symptoms, what to do, and how to communicate with the clients.
  • Remind clients how to stay cool during hot weather.
  • Check for hot weather/air quality warnings; let clients know when they may be at risk.
  • Where possible, work with your municipality, partner organizations, and/or local groceries to provide a stock of water and be aware of where people can access taps or fountains. Sunscreen can also be helpful to distribute.
  • Have your staff check in on elderly and vulnerable clients where they usually stay or congregate, and ask clients to check on each other, especially when local health authorities issue extreme heat warnings.
  • As extremely hot weather can provoke suicidal thoughts in some people, alert clients, volunteers, and staff, to check on those who might be at risk.
  • If possible, create a ‘cooling room’ where clients can come to socialize and cool off. This may require the installation of a (portable) air conditioning unit, or fans (at temperatures above 30°C (86°F), fans alone may not be able to prevent heat-related illness), or other ways that would ensure the room temperature is lower than other places.
  • Make a list of places in the neighbourhood (with air conditioning or shade) that can be used as cooling shelters where clients can go to cool off. This may include community centres and libraries, shopping malls, etc. Depending on your municipality, cooling centres may be posted on a website or social media. If these are far from where clients live, provide transportation passes where possible.
  • If possible, during extreme heat alerts, open an extreme weather shelter for sleeping in a temperature-controlled facility, as occurs for extreme cold.