July 27, 2006 – In Phoenix, Arizona, where the temperature regularly tops 100 degrees, at least five homeless people have died from heat exhaustion this summer. Last Saturday, local advocates say a homeless man died from heat exhaustion in Palm Springs, California. And that same weekend, police officers found an unconscious homeless man who apparently died from heat exhaustion in Red Bird, Texas.
Compiled from news reports, these incidents show that winter is not the only dangerous season for the nationâ€™s homeless, who number in the millions and account for one percent of the nationâ€™s population, according to the Urban Institute, a liberal think-tank.
In part because many shelters close when outside temperatures warm up, more homeless people are outside during the hottest months, exposed to triple-digit temperatures for prolonged periods of time that often leave them with potentially deadly heat stress injuries.
"We always think of homeless people freezing during the winter," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "People have this idea that the homeless can lay on the beach and camp out in the park," he said. But in states such as California and Arizona where temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees, outdoor living is dangerous.
Stoops added that certain longstanding shelter policies do not take into account often-blazing temperatures in the southern or western parts of the country.
Certain longstanding shelter policies do not take into account often-blazing temperatures in the southern or western parts of the country.
"We still have a puritan work ethic and a lot of shelters kick people out during the daytime, thinking they can go out to look for work," he said. When homeless people are forced to stay outside until nighttime, he said, they are exposed to high temperatures with little or no access to water, making them vulnerable to the dangerous heat.
Homeless people are also often kicked out of buildings or shady areas they use to protect themselves from the elements. Britt Hadden, a Long Island resident who said he has been homeless "on and off" for the past two years, said he goes to public libraries or a nearby Starbucks during the day, but often gets kicked out of those buildings.
When he once set up camp for six months, which he said was cool in the summer from the shade of the woods, he said he was forced out when local residents complained that the fires he started for food or warmth were hazardous.
When they are allowed back into shelters, homeless people are less likely to get shelter space during the summer months than winter. While many large cities open overflow shelters that take in some crowded-out people during the winter, they rarely do so in the summer, Stoops said.
But more open shelters will not necessarily reduce heat-related fatalities, advocates say.
Hadden has been living in a sober house for the past month. "Thereâ€™s no fans or air conditioning there; so itâ€™s actually cooler on the outside than in there," he said.
Homeless people are also often kicked out of buildings or shady areas they use to protect themselves from the elements.
Dean Thiner, who runs the Merced Rescue Mission in Merced, California, said that though his shelter is a safer option than staying outside in the sun, it does not fully protect against heat stress because it is not air-conditioned.
"Weâ€™re a three-story building, and heat rises, and our offices are on the first floor, and the guys who live here are on the third floor," Thiner said. Though the Rescue Mission has swamp coolers, which use water to cool the air, "when it gets to be over 100 degrees it ends up being just a fan," he said.
Stoops said local governments and religious organizations can help protect homeless people from heat stress by employing emergency measures such as setting up "cooling stations."
"If every downtown Baptist church, if every city hall opened its facilities to the homeless, people would go," he said, citing as an example cooling stations in Washington, DC, many of which are in government buildings.
"We need to check on people just like we check on the elderlyâ€¦ People need to distribute bottled water to homeless folks," he said. "Outdoor water foundations are nonexistent and restaurants wonâ€™t give free water anymore."
Though heat stroke and nonfatal heat-related ailments happen to homeless people everywhere, the problem seems to be particularly acute and publicized in Phoenix, Arizona, where 32 homeless people died last summer.
Summer overflow shelters have been set up to counter the rising homeless population and respond to last yearâ€™s fatalities, said Jacki Taylor, director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness.
"Thereâ€™s been phenomenal efforts this year," Taylor said, citing the creation of a 900-bed air-conditioned shelter in Phoenix and volunteer-run "watering stations."
While cooling stations and shelters offer respite to some, they do not end the suffering for all.
The public responds strongly to deaths from weather exposure because of these incidentsâ€™ visual power, but those deaths make up a fraction of the causes for premature deaths among the homeless, said John Lozier, executive director of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council.
"The exposure deaths are not nearly as frequent as you would think," said John Lozier, director of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. "What people die of on the streets is regular, treatable diseases and violence," he said.
"People are dying of treatable diseases because they donâ€™t have access to health care," Lozier said.
While cooling stations and shelters offer respite to some, Lozier said, they do not end the suffering for all.
"Shelters vary in the quality of their services," he said. "Shelters are not the solution to homelessness and deaths on the street.â€¦ The solution is housing, with additional services" for those who need extra help.