Much of the U.S., like the rest of the world, is currently experiencing consecutive heatwaves, with temperatures above-average on good days, and unbearably high on bad ones. Some regions, however, are experiencing far more dire situations posed by the rising temperatures. In south-western states, the heat has reached heights of 116 degrees, leading states like Arizona, as well as meteorologists around the country, to issue excessive heat warnings for residents.
With temperatures consistently reaching between 100 to 116 degrees, the peaks of which often fall between 110 to 115 degrees, officials are also recommending staying inside within a cool environment as often as possible. For many Arizonans, this heat wave may be considered a temporary burden, one which may eventually pass – however, for the homeless residents of the state, this is an immediate emergency of life and death. The Maricopa County Department of Health has so far reported 29 heat-associated fatalities this year through the first week of July, with another 126 under investigation. With rising rates of homelessness across the state, officials are warning that we may soon see rising death rates from heat-exposure. In 2021, at least 130 people who died from heat-associated causes in the county were homeless, making up for 42 percent of all heat-associated deaths. According to historical data from the National Weather Service, on average in a 30-year period in the U.S., 130 people die as a result of the heat per year – the same number as the number of homeless people who died from heat-associated causes in a single Arizona county. Statistically speaking, homeless people are 200 times more likely to die from intense heat than those who are sheltered.
Heat deaths can be caused by a number of induced issues such as dehydration, heat stroke, cardiovascular system issues, etc. Many homeless people also have pre-existing chronic health conditions, substance use disorders, and/or mental health issues which will further put them at risk of heat-related illness or death. In major cities particularly, where homelessness rates are elevated, heat can be exceptionally brutal. Cities create what is known as an “urban heat island,” where a city’s roads, buildings, and other structures absorb heat from the sun and radiate it into the surrounding air. Large cities can experience temperatures that are 15-20 degrees higher than its outlying areas, even at night.
Non-profit organizations like Circle The City, which operates several health care clinics and respite centers for the homeless, have been hard at work trying to combat this growing crisis within the state, even launching a new Street Medicine Team to provide daily relief to hard-hit areas. Many cities are already opening public cooling centers where people can shelter from the extreme temperatures. Officials recommend drinking plenty of water and taking breaks in shaded areas as small steps to reduce the likelihood of heat-related illness, while also warning against relying on fans to prevent heat-related illness as they don’t actually cool your body temperature, but instead provide a false sense of safety.