Heat waves 'devastating' for people living on Waterloo region's streets

Experiencing a heat wave during a pandemic is like a cruel double whammy for people living on the streets, advocates for people who are homeless say.

'I don't think that everyone always understands to the devastating effects of the heat,' says Tonya Verburg

Marcy says the heat caused her to pass out in downtown Kitchener. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Experiencing a heat wave during a pandemic is like a cruel double whammy for people living on the streets, advocates for people who experience homelessness say.

"When it gets over a certain temperature, I can't breathe out here," said Marcy. 

The Kitchener woman, who only felt comfortable disclosing her first name, said she even passed out from the heat recently. 

"If it wouldn't be for the young fellow giving me a bottle of water, I don't know where I'd be," she said. 

People living on the streets are one of the hardest hit communities by the heat wave, according to Tonya Verburg, CEO of Ray of Hope.

'Heat can be deadly'

Verburg's organization, along with House of Friendship, opened an emergency men's shelter in Kitchener last week with 28 beds. They're focused on giving people a place to cool down and sleep.

But Verburg thinks more attention should be placed on the dangers of severe heat for people living on the streets.

"The region's been fairly good about providing supports through the winter and I don't think that everyone always understands to the devastating effects of the heat," Verburg said.

"You'll hear lots about Out of the Cold, which is an old program or overflow shelter. Those kinds of programs need to happen year long ... Imagine being on the street and trying to navigate the severe ups and downs of the temperature."

During the COVID-19 shutdown in May, the region didn't initially open its cooling centres after Environment Canada issued heat warnings for the region. But six cooling centres are now open across Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, North Dumfries and Wilmot townships.

Lisa Mertineit says the heat wave can feel destabilizing. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Lisa Mertineit is a Kitchener woman who has experienced homelessness at different points in her life. She says she feels like she's "going to melt" when she goes about her day.

"It makes me feel very unstable," she said, but she says friendships with people on the streets have helped her through both the heat wave and the pandemic.

Jessica Bondy, the housing director at House of Friendship, says the heat can be especially difficult for people with mental health issues.

"If someone is significantly navigating mental health concerns or possibly some substance use challenges, one's ability to understand all of the ramifications that those impacts could have as well as the weather on their body can be challenging," said Bondy.

"We acquire whatever we can to keep people cool because we know the heat can be deadly for folks," said Bondy.

'Barely surviving'

For many facing homelessness, the heat has aggravated the lingering effects of the pandemic.

"I was down when this all hit and it's done nothing but make it worse," said Chris Misener. "[I'm] barely surviving."

Misener has been looking for work as a barber, but hasn't had any luck. He says rent prices have also been a problem.

"Nobody wants anybody in their house and they can charge whatever they want," he said.

Chris Misener says the pandemic has taken its toll on him. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

People with precarious housing and those just on the edge of the poverty line will continue to be impacted by the pandemic, Verburg said.

"We are just seeing the beginnings of the COVID effects," Verburg said. "We offer a meal program, feeding up to 300 people every night. Those needs are just growing and growing as the pandemic continues."

It's a service Marcy has depended on — a relief during what she describes as an isolating time.

"Nobody wants to go near you," she said. She says before the pandemic, people would throw her a few coins to help.

"Now they just look at you and run away."


Julianne Hazlewood is a multimedia journalist who's worked at CBC newsrooms across the country as a host, video journalist, reporter and producer. Have a story idea?


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