Written by: Sara McQuaid
Edited by: Tvisha Shah and Sumaiya Iqbal
In late May of 2023, a wildfire ripped through the area of paper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, causing 16,4000 residents to evacuate, with over 60 homes being destroyed in the area. In 2023 alone, Reuters reported over 30,000 Canadians were forced from their homes temporarily due to forest fires, seeking provisional shelters in an already frustrating and tumultuous rental market.
The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly undeniable as they are palpable throughout communities in Canada. In the Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI) there have been record-breaking numbers of rainfall in 2023. As of September 2023, the Maritimes have already faced the impact of Tropical Storm Lee on September 16th, with winds reaching up to 75 km/h. This resulted in power outages affecting approximately 117 500 homes in Nova Scotia, 18 500 in New Brunswick and 1900 in Prince Edward Island. Additionally, Lee disrupted flights and ferry services throughout the Maritimes. The stark reality is that climate-related hazards are likely to persist, necessitating proactive measures. Although these hurricanes are problems of their own kind, they are exacerbating pre-existing problems such as a rise of homelessness and poverty. How can we help those facing homelessness during climate-related hazards? When the sidewalks are flooded, where can the ones who relied on the streets or the parks as a safe space go? Where can they go if there is nowhere for them to return to?
The Maritimes is a compelling area for the study of climate change’s multifaceted repercussions, owing to an influence of compounded challenges the region faces. It stands as one of Canada’s most susceptible regions to climate emergencies, primarily due to its geography, sizable elderly demographic and an elevated proportion of individuals grappling with disabilities. Notably, persons with disabilities confront an elevated risk of homelessness, with data from a 2017 estimation suggesting that 45% of those sheltered in housing insecurity facilities manifested either mental or physical impairments. Furthermore, the incidence of persons facing homelessness has surged within the principal Maritimes metropolises. Fredericton reported 126 individuals in emergency shelters in 2019, and this figure burgeoned to 196 persons experiencing homelessness by 2023.These numbers do not include those who are “invisibly unhoused”: living with friends or family, couch surfing or residing in motels or hostels. In Halifax, in 2022, 4 areas in the city were approved for tenting sites. In 2023, a call for additional sites was set out by councilor Waye Mason who stated: "The simple truth is that there isn't anywhere else to send people right now."
Although there are emergency shelters for the unhoused situated throughout the provinces, many rely on parks and designated tent cities as safe landing spaces for them to live. However, these tent cities cannot always be relied upon, as during times of climate hazards, they are slated to be evacuated. As Michelle Porter, head of Halifax’s Souls Harbour Rescue Mission has noted: “When you’re already facing a huge shortage of housing, it’s almost impossible to be prepared for major events where there is a catastrophe involved.”
The solutions for these unpreventable events must first come from the federal government. The Canadian government has outlined their plan for action during climate hazards in the Emergency Management Strategy for Canada (EM Strategy). In the EM Strategy, the government describes one of the main components of disaster strategy as community resilience, which is described as “...the ability of its members to draw upon their own inherent strengths and capabilities to absorb the impact of a disruption, to reorganize, change, and learn from the disruption, and to adapt to emergent shocks.” The individual must stay aware during climate hazard seasons of alerts, while the government's role is to issue alerts through emergency evacuation alarm systems. Although these are promising frameworks and solutions, they are not without faults. The Emergency Management Office in Nova Scotia issued an emergency alert two hours late during a flash flood, which resulted in the deaths of four people including two children, And, reports have demonstrated that those who are facing homelessness often tend to work alone and do not seek additional support.
The situation for those experiencing homelessness is undoubtedly challenging, but there are visible government efforts aimed at improving the living conditions of this vulnerable group during climate-related emergencies, as well as for all Canadians enduring such events. The Canadian government has recognized climate change as one of the most pressing challenges of our time and has placed a strong emphasis on preventive solutions. One such approach outlined in the Disaster Recovery Framework is the "Build Back Better" initiative. Climate-related hazards can inflict irreversible damage by destroying homes, and the rebuilding process may take years. However, the objective for building back better is not merely to reconstruct what was lost but to do so in a more sustainable manner. This entails actions such as relocating away from flood-prone areas, upgrading telecommunications infrastructure to withstand climate impacts, constructing flood defenses, enhancing hospitals with more bed capacity, and using materials that are easily repairable post-disaster. These endeavors present an opportunity for cities and provinces to develop sustainable, long-term housing solutions that are environmentally friendly while also providing a path for those currently facing homelessness to transition from the streets into secure homes during the reconstruction process.
Taking into account all of the available information at hand, there are numerous ways governments and able individuals can assist the unhoused during climate hazards to prevent loss of life and work for a more sustainable future. Within a proper resilient community, it is the role of the individual to learn their responsibilities and for the municipal governments to create easy access to this information. It is important for those facing homelessness to learn when it is hurricane season (June to November, with peak months being September to October).
Municipalities should bear the responsibility of relaying this information in clear, designated areas in various languages to ensure those who are unhoused can find their nearest emergency shelter during an evacuation. One great example comes from the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council in Nashville, who designed a series of weather specific informational flyers that can be posted throughout the city with clear instructions on how the individual can best prepare for a climate hazard. For example, one poster shows a diagram of what can happen if you set up a tent in the lowlands during a flood, so even someone struggling with a reading impairment can visualize how to protect themselves during heavy rain. Organizations such as the MacEachen Institute have also proposed staged evacuations to allow for practiced community resilience. These shifts in attitude and adopted policies are monumental in building back better communities where the challenge of invisibility is less severe.
In the face of climate related hazards, the path forward is one filled with determination and hope. As we reflect on the critical issues of homelessness during climate emergencies, it becomes evident that there are numerous avenues through which governments and individuals can make a positive impact. Pam Lovelace, a Nova Scotia councilor has summarized the feeling that accompanies so many harsh climate disasters: “People are exhausted,” Lovelace reported, “It’s so much in such a small time period.
“From a mental health perspective, we’re asking people to check in on their neighbors.” Community resilience is key in building societies that work concurrently to prevent loss of life during climate evacuations. While the government can handle movements to build back better and create more sustainable and affordable housing after climate hazards so those without a home have somewhere safe to return after the storm. With increased awareness and collective efforts, we can navigate climate evacuations with resilience, ensuring that everyone has a safe haven after the storm and the opportunity to thrive once more. Together, we can build not only back better, but with hope for brighter and more sustainable days ahead.
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