Toronto scraps cooling centres, new strategy maps 270 places to beat the heat instead

As Toronto sweats through summer, the city has changed its strategy for dealing with hot weather. But some street nurses are raising concerns.

Street nurse concerned about impact on vulnerable populations

Street nurse Roxie Danielson says places like splash pads and shopping malls are not welcome spaces for some vulnerable people. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

As Toronto sweats through summer, the city has changed its strategy for dealing with hot weather — but a street nurse is raising concerns about the impact on vulnerable populations.

Instead of operating seven specific cooling centres during periods of extreme heat, the city has mapped out roughly 270 places people can cool down anytime, including community centres, libraries, pools, shopping malls and shelters. 

The city will also no longer issue its own heat warnings, opting instead to promote Environment Canada weather alerts to "avoid duplication and confusion."

The former cooling centres, which opened during extended heat warnings, were air-conditioned places with trained staff. One of the centres operated 24/7 for the duration of the heat warning, while the others were open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Now, the facilities that previously served as specific cooling centres will be part of the so-called "heat relief network" during their regular hours, the city said. 

"We will now have many more places people can go, many of them much closer to where people actually live," Mayor John Tory said Friday.

Street nurses raise concerns

However, street nurse Roxie Danielson has concerns about how the new system will affect vulnerable populations, such as people who are homeless.

Plus, she said many of the locations in the network, such as wading pools or shopping malls, simply aren't accessible for vulnerable populations.

"Some of our folks get kicked out of these places by security, they feel discriminated against ," said Danielson, who says the city should bring back and expand the designated cooling centres.

The designated cooling centres used to have staff, healthy snacks, water bottles and access to resources, she said.

Street nurse Roxie Danielson raised concerns about the city's new approach. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

She notes that most places in the network are not 24/7, except for shelters and respite centres that "are already overcrowded."

'Proactive' strategy 

Toronto Public Health, however, says it is trying out a "proactive" strategy for helping vulnerable people during particularly hot weather.

Staff who were once homeless themselves will talk to people around drop-in centres, shelters and respite sites, providing resources and connecting them with other places to cool down.

"Emphasis will be on providing heat relief through familiar, public locations closer to where vulnerable people are located," a city document said. 

A spokesperson for Toronto Public Health says the change was not related to budget cuts and the "heat relief network" was created last year.

The best way to combat heat effects is to improve access to cooling, "based on pre-existing services that are already used by the public," said a report to Toronto's board of health.

Humidex near 40 on Friday

Friday was set to be the "hottest day so far this year," Toronto Public Health said in a tweet, with temperatures in the low 30s and the humidex nearing 40. Meanwhile, Environment Canada issued a heat warning for the city.

Environment Canada alerts are "already communicated broadly," the city said in its explanation of the decision to stop issuing alerts of its own. 

The city said it will promote Environment Canada heat alerts through social media, traditional media and by updating staff.

A sunbather soaks up the heat in Toronto on Friday. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

A map of places to cool down is available on the city's website.

Educational resources about heat and health will also be distributed to members of the heat relief network, a city document said.

With files from Lauren Pelley and Laura Howells