The intervention of a concerned journalist has helped some seniors trapped in hot, poorly ventilated housing, but what lies ahead for thousands more in similar conditions?
Shortly before a heatwave resulted in 486 sudden deaths over five days of extreme temperatures in British Columbia, and premiere John Horgan casually said, “fatalities are a part of life” at a press conference, I joined a Facebook group called ‘Kitsilano Now and Then’. My main objective in joining was to look at nostalgic photos of my childhood haunts in the bucolic Vancouver beachside neighbourhood.
Little did I know it would lead me to a frantic rescue operation to save disabled seniors from an overheated social housing complex where the ventilation system blasted hot air, leaving the temperature at a scorching 50 degrees centigrade.
In fact, Kitsilano Now and Then could well be the name of the view from my own overheated apartment, a 500-square-foot studio in a 1967 building for which I pay over half my income to rent, across the street from a million-dollar home that was once the crash pad of writer Stan Persky and headquarters for the then-radical New Star Books.
This is the same neighbourhood my hippie father used to take me around on his bicycle, when it was a counterculture centre, rather than a money laundering hub for sky-high real estate transactions.
While the neighbourhood often resembles a beer commercial meets Logan’s Run on summer days, the fate of those same hippies who made Kitsilano groovy in the 60s and 70s and didn’t manage to get into the heated real estate market, is less than sunny.
Happily, there is some social housing like the Linden Tree Place at 8th and Vine, only ten blocks from my own tiny home. In two years, I’ll be eligible to apply and I know a few people who live there.
So, when I noticed a cry for help on the Facebook group from a woman only 13 years older than me, saying that disabled seniors had been enduring horrific temperatures for days – I felt compelled to respond.
A 66-year-old widow named Catherine Stafford, who raised three disabled children and has multiple health challenges herself, posted that she and her fellow residents had been calling Terra Housing (the for-profit company that manages the building on behalf of BC Housing and Kitsilano Neighbourhood House) for days with no response.
The facility she lives in has no air conditioning in its apartments, and the ventilation system was sucking hot air from the roof and recirculating it throughout the building. The only place with AC was a small common area that was locked due to coronavirus restrictions.
After three days of non-response from management, the tenants broke in. Some contemplated sleeping in the parking garage.
After reaching out to Catherine on Facebook, I called her and spent the next six hours trying in vain to contact Terra Housing, Kitsilano Neighbourhood House and emergency services. What followed was Kafkaesque.
Catherine asked me to call 911 on her behalf, as she was concerned about “upsetting management.” But when ambulance workers and firemen arrived, they simply told the seniors to contact Terra Housing, which they’d been trying to do unsuccessfully all weekend.
I called them twice. The first time I was hung up on by a man who told me he needed to “keep the line free for real emergencies” and called again (after a long wait on hold listening to Elvis tunes!) and spoke to a woman who said she would call the weekend property manager again.
Apparently, one did eventually arrive and told the residents that the air filtration system could not be turned off for “fire hazard” reasons. She instructed them to put wet towels over the vents blasting 45-degree heat into the hallways.
As temperatures soared, I called 911 again and asked to speak to a supervisor, who told me there was nothing they could do as emergency services were overwhelmed.
Finally, I conferred with Catherine and agreed we needed to find hotel rooms for her and the two other disabled seniors on her floor with no portable AC (as some other residents did), no family and serious respiratory conditions. I rang dozens of hotels, but they were all full. Miraculously, I found one and a member of the Facebook group named Sal Robinson gave her credit card number to reserve two rooms for two nights, to ride out the peak of the heatwave.
At the same time, I reached out to a couple of philanthropist friends, and one returned my call and kindly offered to reimburse Sal for the credit card charges for the rooms. He had lived through a revolution and knew what a real emergency was.
After exposure in local media and almost a week after the ordeal began, the filthy three-year-old air filters that are supposed to be changed every three months, full of holes and caked with black debris, were replaced, and a boiler unit in the basement which was contributing to the heat flow was turned off.
What fate would these seniors have met if a random writer on deadline hadn’t perused her Facebook page on a Sunday morning and felt compelled to assist? Have we learned nothing from the tragedy of Covid-19 and care homes?
Currently I’m on the hunt for portable air conditioners for the ladies who had to return to their BC Housing inferno on Tuesday. Although the temperature has cooled, what lies ahead for them, and thousands of seniors trapped in unsafe, poorly ventilated spaces?
We can only blame global warming so much; the rest is on us. Perhaps it’s time for a Ministry of Senior Affairs.
Meanwhile in Kitsilano, the summer of love has given way to a summer of horror.
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