Homelessness and Heat: What Could Rising Temperatures Bring?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Deepa SivarajanC+S ’16

Nickelsville, a homeless tent-city in Seattle, WA. Source: Joe Mabel

Nickelsville, a homeless tent-city in Seattle, WA. Source: Joe Mabel

When we think about climate change, we hear a lot about the possibility that people could be displaced from their homes by any number of climate impacts, from sea level rise to drought to increased conflict to food insecurity. But what kind of new challenges might come up for people already experiencing homelessness?

The question is significant, since the homeless population in the U.S. is larger than you might think. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, in 2014 there were roughly1.5 million people in the country who stayed at a shelter at some point during the year, and a one-night count in January 2014 found 578,424 people without a permanent residence, 177,373 of which were sleeping outside. (The 2015 full report has not been released yet, although the one-night January count for that year found 564,708 homeless people, 173,268 of which were unsheltered.)

And these numbers are somewhat in question, especially for the unsheltered: many homeless individuals are wary of engaging with strangers, including the volunteers who assist with the counts, and their sleeping spaces are, by design, often difficult to find. Plus, the practice of one-night counts in winter months doesn’t necessarily provide a good sense of the rest of the year.

This last point is especially relevant to me because for my summer research project, I’m examining the effect that heat exposure and rising temperatures might have on the homeless. Here in New York, the topic seems all too relevant, as we go through one of the hotter summers on record for the region. Despite the fact that I’m not used to this kind of weather, having only moved here from the Pacific Northwest last year to join the C+S program, I’m lucky enough to be generally healthy, have easy access to air conditioning and drinking water, and lead a lifestyle that doesn’t require me to overexert myself physically outside or spend long hours in the sun unless I really want to.

And because few healthy people die solely from heat stroke (also known as hyperthermia), those are all factors that make a huge difference when temperatures are high. The medical literature on heat and health generally coalesces around the fact that those most at risk during heat waves are the elderly, people with underlying chronic health issues, those who are bedridden, and those without air conditioning. In fact, air conditioning is usually highlighted as the strongest protective factor to defend against heat-related illness, especially since most deaths during heat waves happen, contrary to popular understanding, in the home.

But where does this leave people experiencing homelessness? Unfortunately, still at risk, since the homeless population in the U.S. suffers from disproportionate levels of chronic disease, particularly cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions, and mental illness, as well as alcohol and drug use that can make them even more vulnerable. Many also lack access to the facilities that are most helpful during heat waves, like water, food, shelter, and health care and other social services. More homeless people are likely to sleep outside when it’s hot out, which can leave them more vulnerable to harassment, abuse, or theft of their belongings. And while the majority of the homeless population is under the age of 50, the dangers are even greater for elderly homeless individuals, who may be less mobile and particularly prone to pre-existing conditions.

So what does this mean for the future, when climate projections forecast rising summer extremes and the possibility of more frequent heat waves? The answer is complicated, since the homeless population has been slowly declining since the government started keeping a consistent count in 2007, even as temperatures are likely to rise.

But this is not true everywhere. In some American cities like my hometown of Seattle, homelessness has continued to increase every year. In fact, that’s why I got interested in this topic in the first place – moving from one city struggling with homelessness to another made me want to learn more about what role climate change might play in this issue. The homeless population in the U.S. is also becoming more and more suburbanized, which could be an issue since suburban and rural areas often lack shelters and sufficient services. And the fact that climate change itself might increase housing instability could create a feedback loop to the issue of homelessness and climate change.

Race and other social demographics play a part too: 59.9 percent of the homeless are people of color, compared to 37.6 percent of the general U.S. population, and in particular 40.5 percent are black, compared to only 12.6 percent of the country. These proportions might increase as the general population of the country becomes more and more diverse. Nearly 15 percent of the total homeless populationis considered “chronically homeless,” which means they have a disability and struggle from more than temporary housing instability; many of these are veterans, including young veterans from recent wars. LGBTQ homelessness is on the increase well, especially for queer and trans youth. All of these factors make for greater challenges as we deal with all the other uncertainties that climate change might bring.

In the meantime, you can help play a part, not just in mitigating climate change, but in looking out for the homeless. In New York, the Department of Homeless Services issues a Code Red Alert during heat waves, and if you see someone in need, you can call 311 to alert their Street Outreach team. Check out whether your city has a similar option, and if you’re experiencing the heat as well, stay cool out there.

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