PHOENIX (AP) – Hundreds of blue, green and gray tents are pitched under the sun’s burning rays in downtown Phoenix, a jumble of thin canvas and plastic along dusty sidewalks. Here, in the hottest big city in America, thousands of homeless people swell as summer’s triple digit temperatures dawn.
The stuffy tent city ballooned amid evictions from the pandemic era and rising rents that have thrown hundreds more people into the bustling streets that become terribly quiet when temperatures peak in mid-afternoon. A heat wave earlier this month brought temperatures of up to 114 degrees (45.5 degrees Celsius) – and it’s just June. Highs reached 118 degrees (47.7 Celsius) last year.
“During the summer, it’s pretty hard to find a place at night that’s cool enough to sleep without the police chasing you away,” says Chris Medlock, a homeless Phoenix man known on the street as “T-Bone” who wears everything he owns. in a small backpack and often sleep in a park or a nearby desert reserve to avoid the crowds.
“If a friendly soul could just offer a place on their couch inside, more people might live,” Medlock said at a dining room where homeless people can get some shade and a free meal.
Excessive heat causes more weather-related deaths in the United States than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined.
Across the country, heat contributes to about 1,500 deaths annually, and advocates estimate that about half of those people are homeless.
Temperatures are rising almost everywhere due to global warming, combining with severe drought in some places to create more intense, frequent and longer heat waves. The past few summers have been some of the hottest on record.
In the country that includes Phoenix alone, at least 130 homeless people were among the 339 individuals who died in 2021 from heat-related causes.
“If 130 homeless people died in any other way, it would be considered a mass-accident event,” said Kristie L. Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington.
This is a problem that stretches across the United States, and now, with rising global temperatures, heat is no longer a danger just in places like Phoenix.
This summer is likely to bring above-normal temperatures across most rural areas worldwide, according to a seasonal map created by volunteer climatologists for the International Research Institute at Columbia University.
Last summer, a heat wave hit the normally temperate Northwest of the U.S., causing Seattle residents to sleep in their gardens and on rooftops, or flee to air-conditioned hotels. Across the state, several people suspected of being homeless died outside, including a man who collapsed behind a gas station.
In Oregon, officials opened 24-hour refrigeration centers for the first time. Volunteer teams blew out water and popsicles to homeless camps on the outskirts of Portland.
A quick scientific analysis concluded that last year’s Pacific Northwest heat wave was virtually impossible without man-made climate change contributing several degrees and overturning previous records.
Even Boston is exploring ways to protect diverse neighborhoods like its Chinatown, where population density and low shade trees help raise temperatures to 106 degrees (41 degrees Celsius) some summer days. The city is planning strategies such as raising tree trunks and other types of shade, using cooler materials for roofs, and expanding its network of cooling centers during heat waves.
This is not just an American problem. An Associated Press analysis last year of a data set published by Columbia University’s climate school found that extreme heat exposure has tripled and now affects about a quarter of the world’s population.
This spring, an extreme heat wave gripped much of Pakistan and India, where homelessness is widespread due to discrimination and inadequate housing. The peak in Jacobabad, Pakistan, near the border with India, hit 122 degrees (50 Celsius) in May.
Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, who heads the Indian Institute of Public Health in the western Indian city of Gandhinagar, said due to poor reporting, it is unknown how many are dying in the country due to heat exposure.
Summer cold centers for the homeless, the elderly and other vulnerable populations have opened every summer in several European countries since a heat wave in 2003 killed 70,000 people across Europe.
Emergency workers on bicycles patrol Madrid’s streets and distribute ice packs and water during the hot months. Yet some 1,300 people, most of them elderly, die every summer in Spain due to health complications exacerbated by excessive heat.
Spain and southern France swelled by extremely hot weather in mid-June last week, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees (40 Celsius) in some areas.
Climate scientist David Hondula, head of Phoenix new office for heat mitigationsays that with such extreme weather now being seen around the world, more solutions are needed to protect the vulnerable, especially homeless people who are about 200 times more likely than sheltered individuals to die from heat-related causes.
“As temperatures across the U.S. and the world continue to rise, cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, New York or Kansas City that do not have the experience or infrastructure to handle heat must also adapt.”
In Phoenix, officials and lawyers are hoping that an empty building recently converted into a 200-bed shelter for homeless people will help save lives this summer.
Mac Mais, 34, was one of the first to move in.
“It can be rough. I stay in the shelters or anywhere I can find them, ”said Mais, who has been homeless on and off since his teens. “Here I can stay out, actually rest, work on job applications, stay out of the heat.”
In Las Vegas, teams deliver bottled water to homeless people living in camps around the country and within a network of underground storm drains beneath the Las Vegas Strip.
Ahmedabad, India, with a population of 8.4 million, was the first South Asian city to design a heat action plan in 2013.
Through its alert system, non-governmental groups reach out to vulnerable people and send text messages to cell phones. Water tankers are sent to slums, while bus stops, temples and libraries become shelters for people to escape from the lightning bolts.
Yet the deaths pile up.
Kimberly Rae Haws, a 62-year-old homeless woman, was seriously burned in October 2020 while stretching out on an hissing Phoenix black roof for an unknown amount of time. The cause of her later death was never investigated.
A young man nicknamed Twitch died of heat exposure when he sat on a curb near a Phoenix soup kitchen in the hours before it opened one weekend in 2018.
“He was supposed to move into permanent housing the following Monday,” said Jim Baker, who oversees that dining room for the St. Vincent de Paul Charity. “His mother was devastated.”
Many such deaths are never confirmed as heat related and are not always noticed due to the stigma of homelessness and a lack of connection with family.
When a 62-year-old mentally ill woman named Shawna Wright died last summer in a hot alley in Salt Lake City, her death only became known when her family published an obituary stating that the system did not kill her during the hottest July on record did not protect, when temperatures reached the triple digits.
Her sister, Tricia Wright, said making it easier for homeless people to get permanent housing would greatly help protect them from extreme summer temperatures.
“We always thought she was tough, that she could get through it,” Tricia Wright said of her sister. “But no one is tough enough for that kind of heat.”