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Saskatoon charities fight a heat wave and a pandemic

Star Phoenix logo Star Phoenix 2020-08-01 Zak Vescera
a person standing in front of a car: Hayley James, left, and Julee Gingera are part of the EGADZ street outreach team. They have been handing out water and Gatorade, along with snacks and hygiene products, to help people stay cool during the heat of summer. © Matt Smith Hayley James, left, and Julee Gingera are part of the EGADZ street outreach team. They have been handing out water and Gatorade, along with snacks and hygiene products, to help people stay cool during the heat of summer.
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Saskatoon non-profits have been hitting the streets to help homeless people weather scorching summer temperatures.

Unlike other years, street outreach workers from the EGADZ drop-in centre also have a global pandemic to contend with. Executive director Don Meikle said it further complicates the task of preventing dehydration and heatstroke among the city’s most vulnerable.

“Since the start of COVID, our main goal of our outreach program has been getting food to people,” Meikle said. 

“Now we’re having to switch to water.”

a group of people sitting around a car:  Temperatures in Saskatoon were high enough this week to set off the second-highest level of the city’s emergency heat response plan. © Matt Smith Temperatures in Saskatoon were high enough this week to set off the second-highest level of the city’s emergency heat response plan.

While temperatures dipped slightly on Friday, Environment Canada noted the mercury rose to 32 C this week and forecasted averages in the high 20s throughout the long weekend.

Medavie Health Services spokesman Troy Davies said those temperatures are uncomfortable for most but can be outright dangerous for people without shelter.

“They don’t have the ability to jump into an air-conditioned house,” Davies said. “It could be life-threatening.” 

Lyn Brown, executive director of Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP), said many on the streets are at risk.

“Many of our individuals facing the challenges of being homeless are also health compromised,” Brown said. “Not being able to cool down during extreme heat will put these individuals at risk for serious complications including heat stroke, delirium, unconsciousness and dehydration.”

In 2018 community groups, the city of Saskatoon and other partners created a heat strategy to provide water and 24/7 access to “cooling spaces” to vulnerable people in the city. 

At level one — when the temperature reaches 30 C — a network of “cooling spaces” across different drop-in sites opens, including city-owned leisure spaces, spray parks and paddling pools. Those spaces are open to anyone, regardless of whether they’re intoxicated or their name is on a “do not admit” list. 

This week, the temperatures got high enough to trigger level three, meaning emergency shelter beds were also made available to people on that list.

A city spokesman said that alert was issued when temperatures rose on Tuesday, and ended on Friday as temperatures dropped to the high 20s.

Brown said COVID-19 means indoor spaces like libraries are no longer available and cooling centres have had to reduce their occupancy to comply with social distancing rules.

That means handing out bottled water is a priority.

Brown said SHIP received a $1,000 donation from the Kinsmen Club of Saskatoon and the organization is spending it on bulk water purchases.

Organizations on the ground say the demand is high.

Delano Kennedy of the Okihtcitawak Patrol Group (OPG) said the group handed out 124 bottles of water in a single day during its route through Pleasant Hill. They and EGADZ both said they’re accepting donations.

There’s a group of 15 to 30 people who “ choose to stay away from all government systems and assistance, staying outside,” the heat strategy notes.

“This group is particularly vulnerable and of concern.” 

zvescera@postmedia.com

twitter.com/zakvescera

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