Sweltering streets: Hundreds of homeless die in extreme heat

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PHOENIX (UKTN) — Hundreds of blue, green and gray tents are pitched in the scorching rays of the sun in downtown Phoenix, a jumble of flimsy canvas and plastic along dusty sidewalks. Here in America’s hottest major city, thousands of homeless people are suffocating as summer’s triple-digit temperatures arrive.

The sweltering tent city has swelled amid pandemic-era evictions and soaring rents that have dumped hundreds more people onto the sizzling streets that become eerily quiet as temperatures peak in the mid-afternoon. midday. A heatwave earlier this month brought temperatures of up to 114 degrees (45.5 degrees Celsius) – and it’s only 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 scaring you away,” said Chris Medlock, a homeless man from Phoenix known on the streets as ” T-Bone” carrying everything he owns. in a small backpack and often sleeps in a park or nearby desert reserve to avoid the crowds.

‘If a good soul could just offer a place on their sofa inside, maybe more people would live,’ Medlock said of a dining room where the homeless can get shade and a meal. free.

Excessive heat causes more weather-related deaths in the United States than hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes combined.

Across the country, heat contributes to some 1,500 deaths a year, and advocates estimate that around half of those people are homeless.

Temperatures are rising almost everywhere due to global warming, combining with sudden drought in some places to create more intense, frequent and longer heat waves. Recent summers have been among the hottest on record.

In the county that includes Phoenix alone, at least 130 homeless people were among the 339 people who died of heat-related causes in 2021.

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

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It’s a problem that stretches across the United States, and now, with rising global temperatures, heat is no longer a hazard just in places like Phoenix.

This summer will likely bring above-normal temperatures to most land regions of the world, according to a seasonal map created by volunteer climatologists for Columbia University’s International Research Institute.

Last summer, a heat wave swept through the normally temperate northwest of the United States and forced Seattle residents to sleep in their yards and on rooftops, or flee to air-conditioned hotels. Across the state, several people believed to be homeless died outdoors, including a man slumped behind a gas station.

In Oregon, authorities opened 24-hour cooling centers for the first time. Teams of volunteers fanned out with water and popsicles at homeless encampments on the outskirts of Portland. .

A quick scientific analysis concluded that last year’s Pacific Northwest heat wave was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change adding several degrees and reversing previous records.

Even Boston is exploring ways to protect various neighborhoods like its Chinatown, where dense population and few shade trees help push temperatures up to 106 degrees (41 degrees Celsius) on some summer days. The city is planning strategies such as increasing the canopy of trees and other types of shade, using cooler materials for roofs and expanding its network of cooling centers during heat waves. .

It’s not just an American problem. An UK Time News analysis last year of a dataset released by Columbia University’s School of Climate found that exposure to extreme heat has tripled and now affects around 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 lack of housing. The peak in Jacobabad, Pakistan, near the border with India, reached 122 degrees (50 degrees 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 unclear how many people are dying in the country because of exposure to heat.

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

Rescue workers patrol the streets of Madrid on bicycles, handing out ice packs and water during the hot months. Yet some 1,300 people, mostly elderly, continue to die in Spain every summer from health complications exacerbated by excessive heat.

Spain and southern France experienced unusually hot weather in mid-June last week, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees (40 degrees Celsius) in some areas.

Climatologist David Hondula, who runs Phoenix new office for heat mitigationsays that with such extreme weather conditions now seen around the world, more solutions are needed to protect the vulnerable, especially the homeless who are around 200 times more likely than those in shelters to die heat-related causes.

“As temperatures continue to rise across the United States and around the world, cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, New York or Kansas City that lack the experience or infrastructure to deal with the heat must also adapt.”

In Phoenix, officials and advocates hope a vacant building recently converted into a 200-bed homeless shelter will help save lives this summer.

Mac Mais, 34, was among the first to move in.

“It can be tough. I stay in shelters or wherever I can find,” said Mais, who has been homeless on and off since he was a teenager. “Here I can stay outside, rest, work on job applications, stay out of the heat.”

In Las Vegas, crews deliver bottled water to homeless people living in encampments around the county and inside an underground storm sewer system beneath the Las Vegas Strip.

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Ahmedabad, India, which has a population of 8.4 million, was the first city in South Asia to design a heat action plan in 2013.

Through its alert system, non-governmental groups reach vulnerable people and send text messages to cell phones. Tanker trucks are sent to slums, while bus stops, temples and libraries become shelters to escape the sweltering rays.

Yet the dead are piling up.

Kimberly Rae Haws, a 62-year-old homeless woman, suffered severe burns in October 2020 as she sprawled indefinitely on a sizzling black Phoenix rooftop. The cause of his subsequent death was never investigated.

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

“He was supposed to move into permanent housing the following Monday,” said Jim Baker, who oversees that dining hall for the St. Vincent de Paul charity. “His mother was devastated.”

Many of these deaths are never confirmed to be heat-related and go unnoticed due to the stigma of homelessness and lack of connection to family.

When a 62-year-old mentally ill woman named Shawna Wright died last summer in a hot Salt Lake City alley, her death wasn’t known until her family released an obituary saying the system doesn’t failed to protect her during the hottest July on record. when temperatures hit triple digits.

Her sister, Tricia Wright, said making it easier for homeless people to access permanent housing would go a long way to protecting them from extreme summer temperatures.

“We always thought she was tough, she could handle it,” Tricia Wright said of her sister. “But nobody’s tough enough for that kind of heat.”

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

Follow Snow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/asnowreports

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Learn more about UKTN’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/Climate

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