British Columbia

Smoky skies in Metro Vancouver hurting homeless people

Wildfire smoke covering the South Coast of B.C. has caused people to worry about the health effects of the poor air quality, but for Vancouver's homeless population, the risks are far greater.

'A lot of people may not understand that it could have consequences for their health,' says advocate

Homeless people are particularly vulnerable during air quality advisories due to their prolonged exposure to the outdoors, says one respirologist. (Cory Correia/CBC News)

An air quality advisory continues to be in effect for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley as high concentrations of fine particulate matter spread across the South Coast due to smoke from B.C. and Washington State wildfires. 

Metro Vancouver is urging people to stay cool and hydrated, seek out indoor spaces with air conditioning and keep doors and windows closed.

Practical advice for many, but not for the region's homeless population who spend most of their days and nights outdoors.

"They're the vulnerable population, they're at particularly high risk of serious lung or heart problems occurring during this high exposure time," said Dr. Don Sin, a respirologist at St. Paul's Hospital. 

'It's like smoking 24/7'

Sin says he is seeing more patients coming into the emergency room and urgent clinics complaining of chest tightness, heart issues, breathing trouble, feelings of fatigue, cough and pounding headaches. 

"It's like smoking 24/7. You know the air quality is so bad that the particle exposure to their lungs will be continuous, and we breath 10 to 20 times every minute.

"It's like smoking continuous cigarettes."

Sin says homeless people should do whatever is necessary to get indoors at night, including finding space in a shelter or staying with a friend. 

"I think the city should open up more shelters, so that we have fewer people on the streets. So that we have fewer people exposed to this air quality during the night," said Sin. 

Sherry Lynn McInnes sleeps in Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park. (Cory Correia/CBC news)

'They expect everybody has a place to go'

Sherry Lynn McInnes says she sleeps in Oppenheimer Park and hasn't been able to find a place that will take her in from the heat and smoke. 

"It's affecting me, I can't even breathe, I get dizzy and everything else like that," said McInnes.

"They expect everybody has a place to go to keep cool and breathe. No, I don't think so."

Hayatt Jassem is homeless and like her neighbours sleeping outside, she says she's having trouble breathing given the poor air quality.

"Not really healthy. Like, lots of people like me have asthma, lots of people have asthma," said Jassem.

Hayatt Jassem says homeless people like herself need help to get out of the heat and smoky conditions but have few options. (Sherry Lynn McInnes)

Laura Stalman says she lives in temporary modular housing but because the rooms are so small she spends half her time outside. 

"The air quality's quite poor down here, and with my COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] and my asthma I find that my breathing is hard, and my chest, it's like someone's stomping down on it," said Stalman.

Shelter space

The Union Gospel Mission (UGM) says its outreach workers have been walking the streets, finding homeless people with pre-existing health conditions and persuading them to get inside to air-conditioned places. 

"One of the challenges is this smoke is so unique and so unusual and so bad that not a lot of people may understand that it could have consequences for their health," said the UGM's Jeremy Hunka.

Hunka says if the need arises, the UGM would consider opening their spaces for longer hours and would support seeing that in other areas of the city as well. 

The City of Vancouver says staff are monitoring vulnerable populations, providing drinking water and directing people to air conditioned facilities such as community centres and libraries. 

If the air quality worsens the city says, with the advice of Vancouver Coastal Health, it would consider taking further actions such as formally opening cooling centres and adding water fountains. 

The city says opening community centres overnight for the homeless population is not currently part of their response plan, but the measure could be part of the discussion for future response plans to decreased air quality.

About the Author

Cory Correia

Video Journalist

Send tips or comments to cory.correia@cbc.ca and follow along on Twitter @corycorreia