Humid streets: Hundreds of homeless people die in extreme heat

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PHOENIX — Hundreds of blue, green and gray tents have been pitched under the scorching sun in downtown Phoenix, a jumble of flimsy canvas and plastic along dusty sidewalks. Here, in America’s hottest city, thousands of homeless people sweat when the triple-digit temperatures of summer hit.

The stuffy tent city has exploded amid pandemic-era evictions and soaring rents, throwing hundreds more people onto the sizzling streets, which become eerily silent as temperatures peak in the afternoon. A heatwave earlier this month brought temperatures as high as 114 degrees (45.5 degrees Celsius) – and it’s only June. The highs reached 118 degrees (47.7 degrees Celsius) last year.

“In the summer, it’s quite difficult to find a place at night that’s cool enough to sleep without the police chasing you away,” said Chris Medlock, a homeless Phoenix man known on the street as “T-Bone ‘ and carries everything he owns in a small backpack and often sleeps in a park or nearby desert reserve to avoid the crowds.

“If a kind soul could just offer a spot on their couch indoors, maybe more people would live,” Medlock said in a dining room where the homeless 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 combined with brutal drought in some places to create more intense, frequent and prolonged heat waves. Recent summers have been some of the hottest on record.

In the county to which Phoenix belongs alone, at least 130 were homeless among the 339 people who died from heat-related causes in 2021.

“If 130 homeless people died in any other way, it would be considered a mass casualty event,” said Kristie L. Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington.

It’s a problem that spans the United States, and now, with rising global temperatures, heat isn’t just a danger in places like Phoenix.

According to a seasonal map created by volunteer climatologists for the International Research Institute at Columbia University, this summer is likely to bring above-average temperatures over most land areas around the world.

Last summer, a heat wave swept through the normally temperate Northwest, prompting Seattle residents to sleep in their backyards and on rooftops, or to flee to air-conditioned hotels. Across the state, several people believed to be homeless died outdoors, including a man who collapsed behind a gas station.

Officials opened 24-hour refrigeration centers for the first time in Oregon. Volunteer teams fanned out with water and popsicles to homeless camps on the outskirts of Portland.

Rapid scientific analysis concluded that last year’s Pacific Northwest heatwave was all but impossible without human-caused climate change adding several degrees and shattering previous records.

Even Boston is looking for ways to protect various neighborhoods like Chinatown, where dense population and few shade trees help temperatures soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit on some summer days. The city is planning strategies such as raising tree canopies and other types of shade, using cooler materials for roofs, and expanding its network of cooling centers during heat waves.

It’s not just a US problem. An Associated Press analysis of a dataset released by Columbia University’s climate school last year found that exposure to extreme heat has tripled and now affects about a quarter of the world’s population.

This spring, an extreme heat wave swept across much of Pakistan and India, where homelessness is rife due to discrimination and inadequate housing. The high in Jacobabad, Pakistan, near the border with India, reached 122 degrees (50 degrees Celsius) in May.

dr Dileep Mavalankar, head of the Indian Institute of Public Health in the western Indian city of Gandhinagar, said due to poor reporting, it was not known how many people were dying from heat exposure in the country.

Summer cooling centers for the homeless, elderly and other vulnerable populations have opened in several European countries every summer since a 2003 heatwave killed 70,000 people across Europe.

Rescue workers on bicycles patrol Madrid’s streets, handing out ice packs and water during the hotter months. Still, about 1,300 people, most of them elderly, die in Spain each summer from health complications aggravated by excessive heat.

Spain and southern France were swollen last week by unseasonably hot weather for mid-June, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees (40 degrees Celsius) in some areas.

Climate scientist David Hondula, who heads Phoenix new thermal insulation officesays that with such extreme weather conditions now being witnessed around the world, more solutions are needed to protect those at risk, particularly the homeless, who are about 200 times more likely to die from heat-related causes is higher than for protected persons.

“As temperatures continue to rise in the United States and around the world, cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, New York or Kansas City that don’t have the experience or infrastructure to deal with heat must also adapt.”

In Phoenix, officials and attorneys are hoping a derelict building recently converted into a 200-bed homeless shelter will help save lives this summer.

Mac Mais, 34, was one of the first to move in.

“It can be tough. I’m staying in the shelters or anywhere I can find them,” said Mais, who has been homeless on and off since he was young. “Here I can stay out, rest, work on applications, stay out of the heat.”

In Las Vegas, teams deliver bottled water to homeless people living in camps across the county and in 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 draft a heat action plan in 2013.

Through its alert system, non-governmental groups reach out to people at risk and send text messages to cellphones. Water tankers are sent into slums, while bus stops, temples, and libraries become havens for people to escape the searing rays.

Still, the deaths are piling up.

Kimberly Rae Haws, a 62-year-old homeless woman, was badly burned in October 2020 while lying sprawled on a sizzling tarmac road in Phoenix for an unknown amount of time. The cause of her subsequent death was never investigated.

A young man nicknamed Twitch died of heat exposure while sitting on a curb near a soup kitchen in Phoenix one weekend in 2018 in the hours before it opened.

“He should be moving to permanent housing next Monday,” said Jim Baker, who oversees this 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 lack of family connection.

When a 62-year-old mentally ill woman named Shawna Wright died in a hot Salt Lake City alley last summer, her death was only known after her family released an obituary saying the system had her during the hottest July since Beginning of recordings not protected. when temperatures hit the triple digits.

Her sister, Tricia Wright, said that making it easier for the homeless to find permanent housing would go a long way in protecting against extreme summer temperatures.

“We always thought she was tough enough to get through this,” Tricia Wright said of her sister. “But nobody’s tough enough for that kind of heat.”

AP science writer Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi and AP writers Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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