Hundreds of US homeless die in heat

  • “Cueball,” left, talks about his dog Lindsay with neighbor Terry Reed, right, at their tents May 20 in Phoenix. AP PHOTO

  • A homeless encampment grows in size just west of downtown Friday, May 20, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Mac Mais, 34, who has been homeless on and off since he was a teen, sits inside a converted vacant building turned into a 200-bed shelter for homeless people recently opened shown Friday, May 20, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

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    "Cueball" wheels himself into an air-conditioned building at the Justa Center where homeless eat lunch and receive other services Friday, May 20, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

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    "Cueball" pets his dog Lindsay at their tent on the edge of a homeless encampment Friday, May 20, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A homeless man works a sign as he sits next a monument to homeless people who have died Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Jim Baker, left, who oversees that dining room for the St. Vincent de Paul charity, talks with a homeless person about getting services Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • Jim Baker, who oversees that dining room for the St. Vincent de Paul charity, sits in the dining room after dinner Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

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    "Cueball", front left, dines with other homeless persons at the Justa Center Friday, May 20, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A homeless person pushes their belongings Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A homeless person sits in the median at an intersection Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A volunteer at the Justa Center picks up trash at the outdoor eating area Friday, May 20, 2022, in Phoenix. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin

  • A homeless man cools off in fountain along the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/John Locher) John Locher

  • A homeless man watches as workers clear a homeless encampment in a storm drain near a casino in Las Vegas on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Hundreds of homeless people die in the streets each year from the heat, in cities around the U.S. and the world. The ranks of homeless have swelled after the pandemic and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. (AP Photo/John Locher) John Locher

  • People cool off in the shade of a boat during a heat wave in Marseille, southern France, Thursday, June 16, 2022. Hot weather is expected to last for several days across the country. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole) Daniel Cole

  • Homeless people sleep in the shade of an overbridge on a hot day in New Delhi, Friday, May 20, 2022. The Indian capital and surrounding areas are facing extreme heat wave conditions. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • A woman sleeps under an umbrella on a breakwater in front of the Mediterranean Sea in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, June 16, 2022. Spain's weather service says a mass of hot air from north Africa is triggering the country's first major heat wave of the year with temperatures expected to rise to 43 degrees Celsius (109.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in certain areas. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) Emilio Morenatti

  • A waitress takes a break during a heat wave in Marseille, southern France, Thursday, June 16, 2022. Hot weather is expected to last for several days across the country. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole) Daniel Cole

  • Shawna Wright smiles in an undated family photo taken by her late father. Wright was a 62-year-old homeless woman who died in a hot alley in Salt Lake City on July 4, 2021, amid record heat in the Utah capital. Cities around the U.S. and the world are being challenged to keep people who live outside from dying in the streets as the ranks of homeless swell and temperatures fueled by climate change soar. Wright's family may have gone unnoticed if her family had not written a frank... D. Kent Wright

Associated Press
Published: 6/20/2022 8:31:28 PM
Modified: 6/20/2022 8:29:04 PM

PHOENIX — Hundreds of blue, green and grey tents are pitched under the sun’s searing rays in downtown Phoenix, a jumble of flimsy canvas and plastic along dusty sidewalks. Here, in the hottest big city in America, thousands of homeless people swelter as the summer’s triple digit temperatures arrive.

The stifling tent city has ballooned amid pandemic-era evictions and surging rents that have dumped hundreds more people onto the sizzling streets that grow eerily quiet when temperatures peak in the midafternoon. A heat wave earlier this month brought temperatures of up to 114 degrees — and it’s only June. Highs reached 118 degrees last year.

“During the summer, it’s pretty hard to find a place at night that’s cool enough to sleep without the police running you off,” said Chris Medlock, a homeless Phoenix man known on the streets as “T-Bone” who carries everything he owns in a small backpack and often beds down in a park or a nearby desert preserve to avoid the crowds.

“If a kind soul could just offer a place on their couch indoors maybe more people would live,” Medlock said at a dining room where homeless people can get some shade and a free meal.

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

Around the country, heat contributes to some 1,500 deaths annually, and advocates estimate about half of those people are homeless.

Temperatures are rising nearly everywhere because of global warming, combining with brutal drought in some places to create more intense, frequent and longer heat waves. The past few summers have been some of the hottest on record.

Just in the county that includes Phoenix, at least 130 homeless people were among the 339 individuals who died from heat-associated causes in 2021.

“If 130 homeless people were dying 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 stretches across the United States, and now, with rising global temperatures, heat is no longer a danger just in places like Phoenix.

This summer will likely bring above-normal temperatures over most land areas worldwide, according to a seasonal map that volunteer climatologists created for the International Research Institute at Columbia University.

Last summer, a heat wave blasted the normally temperate U.S. Northwest and had Seattle residents sleeping in their yards and on roofs, or fleeing to hotels with air conditioning. Across the state, several people presumed to be homeless died outdoors, including a man slumped behind a gas station.

In Oregon, officials opened 24-hour cooling centers for the first time. Volunteer teams fanned out with water and popsicles to homeless encampments on Portland’s outskirts.

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

Even Boston is exploring ways to protect diverse neighborhoods like its Chinatown, where population density and few shade trees help drive temperatures up to 106 degrees some summer days. The city plans strategies like increasing tree canopy and other kinds of shade, using cooler materials for roofs, and expanding its network of cooling centers during heat waves.

It’s not just a U.S. problem. An Associated Press analysis last year of a dataset published by the Columbia University’s climate school found exposure to extreme heat has tripled and now affects about 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 insufficient housing. The high in Jacobabad, Pakistan near the border with India hit 122 degrees in May.

Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, who heads the Indian Institute of Public Health in the western Indian city Gandhinagar, said because of poor reporting it’s unknown how many die in the country from heat exposure.

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

Emergency service workers on bicycles patrol Madrid’s streets, distributing ice packs and water in the hot months. Still, some 1,300 people, most of them elderly, continue to die in Spain each summer because of health complications exacerbated by excess heat.

Spain and southern France last week sweltered through unusually hot weather for mid-June, with temperatures hitting 104 degrees in some areas.

Climate scientist David Hondula, who heads Phoenix’s new office for heat mitigation, says that with such extreme weather now seen around the world, more solutions are needed to protect the vulnerable, especially homeless people who are about 200 times more likely than sheltered individuals to die from heat-associated causes.

“As temperatures continue to rise across the U.S. and the world, cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, New York or Kansas City that don’t have the experience or infrastructure for dealing with heat have to adjust as well.”

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

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

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

In Las Vegas, teams deliver bottled water to homeless people living in encampments around the county and inside a network of underground storm drains under the Las Vegas strip.

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

Through its warning system, nongovernmental groups reach out to vulnerable people and send text messages to mobile phones. Water tankers are dispatched to slums, while bus stops, temples and libraries become shelters for people to escape the blistering rays.

Still, the deaths pile up.

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

A young man nicknamed Twitch died from heat exposure as he sat on a curb near a Phoenix soup kitchen in the hours before it opened one weekend in 2018.

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

Many such deaths are never confirmed as heat related and aren’t always noticed because of 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 alley in Salt Lake City, her death only became known when her family published an obituary saying the system failed to protect her during the hottest July on record, when temperatures reached the triple digits.

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

“We always thought she was tough, that she could get through it,” Tricia Wright said of her sister. “But no one is tough enough for that kind of heat.”

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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.

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

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Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/Climate


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