Without a home on the hottest day in history

When we encounter her, Mary is sitting on a shaded behind an Abbotsford strip mall. An older woman who looks to be the age of my mother, she is wearing black pants and a green, well-worn winter jacket. Mary (not her real name) is satisfied where she is, but Jesse Wegenast beckons her into the van. Sit down for a moment in the air-conditioning, he says brightly.

It’s Monday morning and across the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland, most people have just experienced the hottest weekend of their lives. Temperatures reached 40 C and the upcoming day was expected to be the hottest of the bunch, with highs forecast for an obscene, ridiculous, and possibly deadly 44 C.

For those without air conditioning, temperatures in the mid-30s can stress the heart and other vital systems. To help, cities and community groups often set up cooling centres to give people a place to escape the heat, while outreach workers adjust their days to try to connect directly with vulnerable people, providing water and critical information. But when it feels like 50 C outside, the heat becomes much more dangerous, both for those with homes but no air-conditioning, and those without any shelter at all.

When Wegenast pulls up and I step in his minivan, it’s just after 10:30am. The temperature is already 35 C, and the sun is baking down on the pavement. Wegenast has been working with The 5 and 2 Ministries for more than a decade—an organization that provides support and services to people without housing—and was recently appointed executive director of the organization. He also coordinates Abbotsford’s extreme weather response (an entirely unpaid, de facto position). This morning though, he is just a guy with 10 flats of water in the back of his minivan and the experience to know where to find the people who need it.

The routine over the next 2 hours is simple: Stop. Smile. “How’s it going?” Share information about cooling stations. And offer water. Lots of water. The van does not have an unlimited supply of water, but you don’t ration it, Wegenast says. If you give a group or person more than they can drink, you have created a new supply node. A person with extra water is a person who can give it to anyone who stops by without some on hand.

We drive by Jubilee Park. Normally, there are a half-dozen people or more around the downtown site. Today, it’s deserted. As the temperature climbs towards 40 (by 4pm it will hit 42.9 C, the highest temperature ever officially recorded in the city), the value of shade only goes so far. People find relief where they can. They buy a cheap drink and air conditioning time at McDonald’s. They find a spot at a library. They wander a mall. They find a friend with a couch.

“Air conditioning is the name of the game,” says Wegenast.

In times of extreme cold, funding, non-profit organizations, and workers come together like a well-oiled machine, using everything they learned from past experience. The heat isn’t new. The intensity is. For obvious reasons, extreme weather responses have been designed for the type of weather the Fraser Valley tends to experience. But this recent heat wave is far outside our climate norms. Heat on this scale is more similar to an extreme cold weather event, in which just being outside can be deadly, than a typical hot weather event. During extremely cold periods, a funding and organizational framework enables the quick mobilization of organizations and workers. Because no previous heat event has been as dangerous as this one, such a framework has never been needed.

“There is a big difference between 35 and 45,” Wegenast says. “Really, what we have is designed for 32-degree weather.” This has necessitated an ad hoc response, with various organizations offering people and infrastructure to help reach those at risk, replicating a winter response. It seems to be working this time, but the heat wave, and what it says about the potential for future ones, may prompt a reconsideration of future summer extreme weather systems and plans, Wegenast says.

Mary is happy for a seat in the van. She peels off her jacket, though she downplays the heat outside. Wegenast suggests she help us find people who need water, and she agrees. She and Jesse have known each other a long time and they chat casually as we drive east. Soon, we are in the parking lot of 1 of 5 cooling stations in Abbotsford, and Wegenast’s sales pitch has evolved from Come hang out to You might die if you stay outside.

The location of Abbotsford’s cooling stations are not ideal—on the periphery of the city and outside of walking distance for most—but a shuttle van is providing rides to and from the centres. It’s that link to her home base that seems to seal the deal with Mary. We pull into the centre and walk in. The air-conditioned interior blasts a breeze of soothing cool air as Mary signs in. She doesn’t know anyone here and this isn’t home. But on the hottest day in Canadian history, it will have to do for now.

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