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Homeless in the heat: ASU grad examines lethal situation

July 21, 2011

The hot summer months can be hard to face, especially if you don’t have air conditioning in your home. But what if you don’t have a home at all?

More than 2,700 people live on the streets in Maricopa County, according to a 2010 count from local social service agencies. With summer temperatures in the triple digits and heat warnings issued regularly, the homeless population is at high risk for heat-related illnesses. For those of us who spend most of our time indoors, it can be hard to imagine being homeless in the heat.

Recent ASU graduate Cory Sanchez interviewed 27 homeless people in Phoenix last summer as part of his master’s thesis for the School of Social Transformation in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Although the state health department is working to provide relief to these homeless people, Sanchez said there is still much to be done.

Extreme heat can lead to extreme sweating, and with that loss of fluid comes dehydration. Heat exposure also can lead to hyperthermia, which occurs when the body becomes so dangerously hot that sweating cannot cool it down. Sanchez learned from those he interviewed that it’s not uncommon for homeless people to die from heat-related causes.

“There’s a guy that died by the shelter over there, found him dead," said one man, interviewed by Sanchez, who wished to remain anonymous. "And another guy died in an alley over there.”

The homeless population also has high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, which makes living in the heat even more dangerous for them.

“It makes their body respond differently," Sanchez said. "It increases their cravings and dependency. When they do use, whether it be alcohol or drugs, it makes it worse because they can’t recognize some of the physiological changes in their bodies.”

Many of those facing addiction do not have access to health care, or are too afraid to seek help, making it nearly impossible for them to get clean. In addition, many homeless people suffer from mental illness. Those who can afford health care may be on medications that make them unable to sweat normally. 

“You have people out here that are on medications and have mental and physical ailments that are, for all practical purposes, not even supposed to be in the heat, let alone direct sunlight," the man told Sanchez. "And that’s going to cause a lot of problems ... and it does."

Even those homeless people who, generally, are in good health must face the difficult task of finding shelter from the heat.

The health department encourages everyone to stay in an air-conditioned place to protect themselves from the heat, but that’s not so easy for someone with no home and very little money. Aside from the public library, there are few indoor places where homeless people are allowed.

“If you see the police, you leave, even if you’re not doing anything wrong," says another homeless man with whom Sanchez spoke. "You know that they’re coming 'cause you’re homeless and you’re not supposed to be where you’re at.” 

Some people try to find shelter on public transportation. “They may get bus passes, or take a risk of getting on the bus or light rail without passes,” Sanchez said. Others look to homeless shelters, but these safe havens often have to close their doors during the hottest part of the day to clean and set up, according to Sanchez.

Recognizing the need for relief, Maricopa County created a space for homeless people called the Human Services Campus. Located near the downtown Phoenix courthouse, the campus includes a food bank, health care center and a grassy area with ramadas that provide shade. Sanchez said many homeless people know about the campus and use its services, especially during the summer.

The county also leads a summer campaign called the Extreme Heat Relief Network, for which Sanchez volunteers.

“Through donations, they amass pallets upon pallets of bottled water,” Sanchez said. Volunteers and workers from non-profit agencies, churches and shelters set up “hydration stations” around the metropolitan area to distribute water to anyone in need. Some of the stations also provide shade so people can escape the direct sunlight.

Although the government and other agencies are working to keep homeless people alive throughout the summer, Sanchez said it’s important to get them off the streets long-term.

“They’re taking a structural problem of homelessness – a lack of affordable housing, a lack of availability of treatment for chemical dependence – and they’re essentially putting a Band-Aid on it," Sanchez said. "That’s going to help people, but it’s not really going to attack the root of the problem."

Sanchez recently presented his research at a meeting for the Coalition of Heat Relief Services, an initiative led by Valley of the Sun United Way. There, he was able to share his insights with public health and government officials. Everyone agreed that affordable housing and health care are two of the biggest concerns for the homeless population. However, Sanchez learned through his research that the problem is extremely complex.

“Most people told me that you can't simply house the homeless. The chronically homeless have gotten used to the streets and aren't always able to function within the norms of society,” Sanchez said.

One solution, he said, is to provide transitional housing – a supervised living community for homeless people to stay in until they are able to move on to more independent living. Providing water and shelter may combat the immediate threat of death from the heat, but Sanchez said he believes it also is possible to make a more lasting difference.

To learn more about extreme heat and find out how you can help, visit:

by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development