It's Hotter for the Homeless

Laura Kiesel
Spare Change News

As the thermostat in Boston has been hovering close to or above 90 degrees most days lately, it is important to keep in mind the dangers of overexposure to heat. The impact is often underreported, but heat waves generally kill more than 400 annually in the United States, according to author and sociologist Eric Klinenberg – more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined.

Extreme heat is often combined with high humidity, and can endanger public health and safety.

People in cities are especially vulnerable to the dangers of heat spells because asphalt and blacktop absorb sunlight, there is more heat exhaust from buildings and vehicles, and there are more vulnerable to heat stroke than those in rural areas.

Homeless people are at particular risk of suffering heat-related disorders because they usually do not have access to air-conditioned areas during heat waves. Fortunately, there are several resources available to homeless individuals in the Boston area to help them escape the heat, or at least minimize its impact on them.

“The good news is that we really emphasize preparedness for the heat and hot weather throughout the spring and summer months, since homeless people are the most vulnerable because of health issues,” said James Greene, the director of the Emergency Shelter Commission for the city of Boston.

One of the roles of the commission is to coordinate the city-wide response for homeless people during weather emergencies, including heat waves. This includes working closely with homeless shelters and other groups that focus on homeless outreach.

“We rely a lot on our partnerships,” said Greene.

When the weather becomes too hot, Greene says the commission requests that Boston shelters stay open 24 hours a day so that people have the option of getting out of the heat. Some shelters, such as the Pine Street Inn, also dispatch vans and street teams to drive around and offer transport to homeless people back to the shelter. During heat waves, the New England Center for Homeless Veterans also drops its restrictions and opens up its doors to all homeless people, regardless of veteran status.

And for those who might resist spending their days at a shelter, there are other alternatives for beating the heat. These include “cooling centers,” which are usually senior or community centers that are air conditioned and offer options for indoor recreational activities during the day, or city pools, which often have extended hours during heat waves.

In addition to trying to get homeless people out of the elements, the commission also works with outreach teams to distribute bottled water to those people who remain outside. According to Greene, homeless individuals who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are at increased risk of suffering from heat stroke and other adverse health effects from the heat because of the dehydrating effects of those substances. Those who are high or intoxicated also will be less aware of their body’s response to the weather and more susceptible to overexposure.

Eric Helberg, who is the homeless outreach police officer for the city of Cambridge, also prioritizes getting homeless out of the heat and indoors whenever possible.

“We work very closely with homeless shelter providers,” explained Helberg, whose duties include patrolling specific spots where homeless people may congregate, such as Cambridge Commons, and ensuring everyone is comfortable and not in any danger from the heat.

If someone is overly lethargic, or appears to have passed out, Helberg’s job is to make sure they receive proper medical attention.

Helberg makes sure to share resources with anyone who might be interested. For instance, he will refer people to the cooling center at the nearby high school, suggest they spend some time in the local library in order to get out of the sun, or offer them information about a local rehabilitation program.

“We’re always outside talking to people on the streets,” said Helberg.

As with Boston and Cambridge, Somerville’s homeless shelters remain open during the day during very hot weather.

The Somerville Homeless Coalition, which runs a shelter at the Haitian Holy Bible Baptist Church in the Davis Square area, also opens its doors during the day when the temperatures reach start closing in at 90 degrees.

“A lot of people are just happy to watch television, play games or read books,” remarked Mark
Alston-Follansbee, the Coalition’s executive director.

Though the shelter is not air conditioned, since it is located in the basement of the church, it stays relatively cool at all times. It is also the only shelter in Somerville that is open to both men and women.

“Being homeless compromises one’s health, so we don’t want folks outside in an environment that will worsen their condition,” explained Alston-Follansbee.

However, many homeless individuals may still prefer to stay outside despite the very uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous) weather conditions.

“It’s not bad as long as you keep hydrated,” said Scott Matthews, who says he prefers to sleep outside rather than stay at a shelter most of the time.

Matthews and his friend (who wished to remain anonymous) explained that many times shelters become overcrowded and noisy when it gets too hot outside, and that can lead to conflict and in-fighting among the patrons.

“At least outside, you can get peace and quiet,” said Matthews.

Spare Change News vendor Harold Moore also prefers to be outside when the weather is hot.

“I stay out [of the sun] in the afternoon and keep in the shade,” said Moore, who then raises his arm to show his water bottle. “And I stay close to access to lots of cool water.”

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LAURA KIESEL is a freelance writer.

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