Extreme heat is already the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States. 2017 marked the first time that the United States has seen an increase in homelessness in almost a decade, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness rose by 9 percent between 2016 and 2017. More than 180,000 Americans were living exposed to the elements on any single night that year.
The annual point-in-time count from Housing and Urban Development officials found roughly 40,000 homeless veterans in 2017, an increase of nearly 600 individuals from the same mark in 2016. The number of homeless children in the US grew from 1.2 million in 2007 to 1.6 million in 2010.
So, what caused the increase in fatalities? Between 2015 and 2016, Maricopa County experienced a 25 percent increase in the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. The mortality data shows that the percentage of heat-associated deaths from homeless populations more than doubled—from 13 percent to 33 percent that year. Based on these numbers, it seems likely that the increase in unsheltered homelessness played a larger role in the deaths that summer than the blistering heat itself.
According to research from the University of South Florida, in 2016, 55 percent of people experiencing homelessness in Pasco County, Florida, were concerned about their health during hot weather, yet less than half could identify symptoms associated with heat illness. Twelve percent of the people in the study also lacked access to reliable drinking water.
According to the same HUD report, California and Florida ranked highest in the nation for the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in one state; together, they accounted for 53 percent of all unsheltered homelessness in the country.
While it may be tempting to see climate change, and weather-related hazards in general, as ‘natural’ problems, they are fundamentally attributable to social processes. This concept, often called social vulnerability, is a common framework for unpacking the effects of extreme weather on people and communities. Though scientists and politicians alike acknowledge that social vulnerability plays an important role in causing heat-related death and illness, little has been done to address the problem.
Ways you can help the homeless
- Most cities have cooling centers where people can go freely on extreme heat days. Finding out what services are available in your area and sharing that information with those in less fortunate circumstances could help save lives. If you are able to assist someone in getting to a cooler place, that’s even better.
- Cold bottles of water are always welcome when the mercury rises—carry some around and hand them out to people you walk by.
- In addition to water, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, and umbrellas can help people stay cool, and bus passes or tickets to a movie can give someone an air-conditioned place to go for a while.
- If you see someone who looks passed out during a heat wave, don’t assume they are OK. Check on them or call a paramedic.
If the number of homeless people continues to increase alongside temperatures, it will be a recipe for serious health consequences. Addressing social problems like homelessness directly may do more to mitigate extreme heat effects than emissions reductions or urban greening ever will. We have to care for our neighbors, fund shelters, and curb gentrification.
(Personal thoughts from the author: Shouldn’t the ones with mental illness, the innocent children of single mothers, and the vets who served for our freedoms, take priority over any citizens from other countries?)
Ref. NOLA, mothernews.com, slate.com, globelnews.com, CNN
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