We are being tested by smoke, fire, heat and disease

As we emerge from the pandemic, Kamloopsians expect that summer, especially this summer, will be liberating.

image: Globe and Mail

After being cooped up all winter, carefully  cloistering ourselves and observing ceremonial cleansing, we look forward to being outside, basking in the glory of Kamloops’ legendary heat.

But this summer, the heat is oppressive. And like the pandemic, the smoke keeps us indoors. Now all we want to do is seek the refuge of an air conditioned shelter.

It all tests our resiliency and takes its toll on our psyche.

Instead of being rewarded for our good hygiene in fighting the pandemic, we are stuck inside as thick smoke from wildfires that blanket the city.

When you’re choking on smoke and your eyes are watering, it’s bad for your physical health to be outside. And it’s bad for your mental health to be inside.

We imagined that the “new normal” will be adjusting to a world in which most people are vaccinated and COVID-19 is just another bug in the cast of flu characters.

But our new normal will have to include hotter summers, wildfires and smoke. The areas burned will become even greater.

The area burned by wildfires in Canada has doubled since the early 1970s, says Dr. Mike Flannigan, research chair for fire science at Thompson Rivers University.

And it’s only going to get worse, says Flannigan, – it’s just a matter of how much worse. Modest predictive modelling suggests the area burned in Canada will double again by the end of the century; more aggressive modelling predicts an increase by 11 times.

We are getting familiar with the measurement of the smoke hazard –just how bad is it? The hazard is measured by the weight of smoke particles in a certain volume of air; specifically, the weight of PM2.5 particles in micrograms per cubic metre.

What makes the PM2.5 particles so potent is that they can affect every organ in the body, not just the lungs.

Sarah Henderson, scientific director in environmental health services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says that the particles are dangerous long before you can smell and taste the smoke. At levels of only 30 micrograms per cubic metre, adverse reactions begin:

“When it looks really bad, people think it is really bad,” she said. “But it becomes unhealthy long before it looks terrible. The immunological response ends up causing inflammation, and that inflammation is systemic.”

Concerned about the smoke hazard, I recently installed an air sensor, made by Purple Air, in my house. While the weekly average reading has been nine micrograms per cubic metre, which is safe, sometimes it peaks at over 50.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has studied people’s resiliency in the aftermath of hurricanes, terrorist attacks, life-threatening injuries and epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Bonanno’s research shows three common psychological responses to hardship. Two thirds of people are resilient and maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health. About 25 percent struggle temporarily with psychopathology such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and then recover. And 10 percent suffer lasting psychological distress.

We are being tested on a number of fronts. Physical and mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness –they provide an occasion for everyone to rise to the challenge, to draw closer together and support those in need.

Kamloops needs a homeless sleep centre

Kamloops agencies care for the spiritual and physical needs of our homeless: faith, food, warmth in the winter, air conditioning in the summer.

credit :SeanShot. Getty Images

However, there is no place to get a decent sleep.

Accommodating the sleep needs of the homeless is often regarded as a “nice to have” feature. But sleeplessness can reduce the immune system, put people at greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The homeless are disproportionately affected. Almost one half suffer from insomnia.

Sleeplessness affects more than the physical health of the homeless. They already suffer from anxiety because of their precarious lifestyle. Mental illness further compounds anxiety. Sleeplessness adds to that.

Insufficient sleep impairs the mind, hampering decision making, memory, and mood. A recent study found that adults who stayed awake for just one twenty-four-hour period had an anxiety response 30 percent stronger than others who were allowed to sleep (Walrus, December, 2019).

Shelter staff and volunteers experience first-hand the frustration and aggression of the homeless resulting from exhaustion. Shelters are not designed to provide long, flexible hours of sleep.

Sleeping on park benches, doorways, and bus shelters is frowned on. Municipalities install “hostile” architectural elements, such as tilted benches and street spikes, which are intentionally designed to prevent people from lying down.

Social stigma and aggression from passersby can worsen the situation for anyone trying to find rest in a bus shelter or on a park bench.

I find public sleeping disturbing, except in certain circumstances such as at the beach or on a blanket in a park where a picnic is obvious. When I see someone sleeping on a sidewalk, I have mixed feelings of sympathy and offense at the encounter of an unconscious body.

Social norms determine when, where, and with whom people should sleep. Those norms are spelled out in shelter rules, loitering regulations, and policing practice. That leaves street people socially ostracized.

Street people often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to get some sleep. But alcohol and drugs operate in a negative feedback loop. They provide the illusion of inducing rest but actually disturb sleep, leaving people more tired, more likely to feel pain, and more inclined to self-medicate.

Restaurants have varying policies regarding sleeping. The ones that I go to on the (North) Shore allow sleeping. I won’t name them because I don’t want to infer official policy. I often see a transient young person with their head down on the table, asleep. Somehow, I feel more protective of young people so obviously sleep deprived –perhaps for the same reason I feel protective of children or because I, too, have hitchhiked globally and experienced “rough sleeping,” as the Brits put it.

A good sleep for the homeless is not a trivial problem. The median cost of each homeless person to Canadian society is $55,000 per year and half of that goes to health care, more to policing and social services. In Kamloops, that amounts to $10 million for the approximate 180 homeless people here.

A good night’s sleep for the homeless would cut health and policing costs, reduce the wear-and-tear on shelter staff and volunteers, remove disturbing bodies from our streets and give the homeless what we all wish for ourselves –peaceful slumber.