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This is what an 'incredibly difficult' heat wave was like inside one of Canada's densest neighbourhoods

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In the eye of a scorching heat wave, the water suddenly turned off in a Toronto apartment building.

“The whole 13 hours we didn't have water,” Breshna Kayoumi, a longtime resident of 375 Bleecker Street, northeast of Toronto’s downtown core, said. “It’s like the people in community housing don’t count as human.”

On Wednesday night, the mother of five sourced a hose around the side of the building and hustled with jugs up and down 24 storeys in the elevator from 7:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.

Toronto Community Housing confirmed to CTV News that there was an “unexpected emergency” that cut the overall water supply for the upper floors of the building, overnight into the early hours of Thursday morning.

Outside, it was sweltering. Temperatures reached the mid-thirties, and felt even hotter with the humidity in Toronto, and across Ontario, prompting a five day heat warning from Environment Canada.

The feverish air felt thick, trapped in the concrete collection of buildings in one of Canada’s densest neighbourhoods – St James Town, where almost 30,000 people live, according to the city. Here, construction is constant, green space feels fleeting and air conditioning is a treasure.

Across the street from 375 Bleeker, the construction site of a 51-storey apartment building has temporarily taken over a park and reduced it to a patch of grass.

Breshna Kayoumi fills jugs of water outside of 375 Bleeker Street while the taps are turned off in her apartment. “It’s kind of been ridiculous,” Breshna’s daughter Zouahl Kayoumi said as she sat with her mother outside a nearby church in the shade, where the drilling on their doorstep was softened to a hum.

“The building, the lack of green spaces, the noise, the heat. It’s just been an incredibly difficult week with everything that’s been going on,” the 24-year-old said.

St James Town resident Zouahl Kayoumi sits outside of a church near her apartment to find shade during a heat wave in Toronto. Inside, Zouahl monitors the thermostat in her bedroom as it rises to 30 degrees, even 35 at peak times. There is air conditioning in their apartment, but only in the living room, which doesn’t reach her bedroom.

On these hot days, the whole family gathers in the living room. Zouahl cracks the window open to its maximum span of 10 cm, pulls down the blinds and turns off the lights as the sunshine soaks into their west-facing apartment in the afternoon.

Apark across the street from 375 Bleecker Street has temporarily been reduced. Several floors up, Shaheen Kauser looks out at her neighbourhood of almost 15 years from her blazing-hot balcony. She notes where trees once provided shade across the street, now rubble.

The 67-year-old lives alone. She keeps 12 big bottles of water stacked in the corner of her bedroom in case of emergency situations like Wednesday night. There’s an air conditioning unit on the floor in her living room beneath a computer desk wedged in the corner of the room.

“I don't have any space. How can I use my computer and how can I hear the TV?”

Shaheen Kauser stands on her balcony looking across the street at where a park has been replaced by construction. When she turns it on, like a plane engine preparing to take off, it rattles to life.

But according to Zouahl, most residents in the building don’t have access to cooling resources, especially in their apartments. “Or if they do have, they are broken and they can’t afford to fix them,” she said.

Environment Canada’s heat warning ended over the weekend, but it’s just the start of the summer, and Zouahl is preparing for what’s to come.

A thermostat reaches 30 degrees inside of a Toronto apartment. “This is not only something that’s happening once. This is something that is going to continue happening with climate change and rising temperatures and we are going to see more extreme heat events in the future,” she said.

She is part of a coalition taking action to keep the community cool while pushing the city to institute a maximum indoor temperature of 26 degrees and free air conditioning for the elderly.

A collection of apartment buildings in St James Town, northeast of downtown Toronto. As these decisions sit with the city, the collective of advocates is holding education sessions on emergency preparedness in the heat and hosting community walks to the wading pool in Wellesley Park and visits to Riverdale Farm in Cabbagetown.

They are also pushing for the city to replace the parks that have vanished from their neighbourhood.

“Green spaces are being diminished in St James Town. We’re trying to slowly, slowly take it back.” 

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