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Extreme Summer Heat Is Endangering Homeless People Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

As a ‘heat dome’ descends on much of the country and local governments scramble to provide safe refuges, concern grows over the effect of a disease that has ‘totally demolished the homeless people.’

An outreach team member in Los Angeles works to test homeless people for COVID-19 on April 29, 2020.Getty Images

Weeks ago, Keith Britton was staying in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York. But others in the facility weren’t following social distancing guidance or wearing masks, and after his roommate contracted coronavirus, he decided he’d be safer on the streets.

“The worst thing that could have happened was this virus,” Britton said while sitting on cardboard at the edge of Manhattan’s Union Square on a Tuesday afternoon, a sign balanced between his legs. “It just totally demolished the homeless people.”

As COVID-19 sweeps the country, crowded facilities like homeless shelters have facilitated the rapid spread of the virus that causes the disease. Limited personal space, shared bathrooms, and inadequate testing have fueled concerns among health experts, who say the pandemic has contributed to an increase in deaths among homeless people in New York, San Francisco and other major cities. Some homeless people have decided sleeping outside allows more personal freedom and is a safer option. But with a “massive heat dome” expected to cover much of the country this week and this summer projected to be significantly hotter than average, the nation’s more than 200,000 unsheltered homeless individuals face a set of weather-related dangers on top of the pandemic. 

Typical summers carry the risk of heat-related illness, and an average of 702 people suffer heat-related deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With many businesses and public facilities across the country shuttered due to the pandemic, homeless populations have fewer options to get water, use bathrooms, and cool down. Refuges still available may be crowded, adding additional health risks for a population already more susceptible to contracting acute cases of coronavirus.

“It’s never been easy for homeless people to stay cool in the summer, but the risk of COVID as well as the reduced resources that people are encountering are creating additional barriers for what was already a significant challenge,” Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, told The Appeal. “The past few months have been scary and uncertain and stressful for all of us, and I can only imagine how much more stressful and scary and uncertain it has been for people who don’t even know where they’re sleeping at night.”

Just as the CDC’s hand-washing guidelines have proved impractical for homeless people across the country, who don’t always have regular access to running water or money for hand sanitizer, the government’s advice for staying cool offers few solutions for those without shelter. Drinking water isn’t always accessible. Showers are rarely available when most needed. 

New York City, which has more than 78,600 homeless people, entered phase three of its four-step reopening process the week of July 6. But many of the typical means of finding shelter from extreme summer heat remain inaccessible for homeless people. 

Public libraries, which provide shade, water, and bathrooms, have been closed across all five boroughs since March. Limited locations will reopen today, but only offer drop-off and pickup services. Subways offer valuable air conditioning during the day but have shuttered nightly, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., since May. New York City recently announced hundreds of new outdoor cooling features, like additional spray showers in parks. But Simone said that information about cooling centers is not always accessible to those sleeping on the street. 

The New York City Department of Social Services did not answer questions for this story, but on Thursday, the city announced that 145 of its 500 indoor cooling centers “are prepared to open.” When temperatures rise above a critical level determined by the National Weather Service, outreach workers increase efforts to move homeless people indoors. 

“How will that plan work in the age of COVID?” Bobby Watts, the CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, asked, noting the city’s Code Red plans had worked well in prior years. “They need to find additional space so that you can decompress and get people out of the heat.” 

Though New York City has the nation’s largest homeless population, the country’s former COVID-19 epicenter has succeeded in curbing the spread of the virus. In 41 other states and territories, as well as in Washington, D.C., cases are rising. The situation in Los Angeles, which has the nation’s second-largest homeless population, is particularly dire. Los Angeles County accounts for more than 40 percent of the state’s skyrocketing coronavirus diagnoses and has added an average of 1,700 new cases each day during a seven-day period ending Friday.

About 48,000 of the county’s more than 66,000 homeless individuals are unsheltered, according to Ahmad Chapman, the director of communications for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“Our outreach teams are constantly checking in on our clients to offer services—including shelter—and help with other needs our clients might have like receiving water. Outreach teams can pass along the locations of mobile shower units, bathrooms, and other facility needs that our clients require,” Chapman told The Appeal.

In April, the county vowed to place 15,000 of the city’s most medically vulnerable homeless people into hotels. During the week of June 22, the city was only providing rooms to some 3,600 people and authorities altered plans, instead pledging to find permanent housing for those 15,000 residents by June 2021. Such an effort still leaves vast numbers of people exposed to summer temperatures, and, like in other metropolitan areas, shelters had to slash capacity to adhere to social distancing guidance. Despite the city’s efforts, homeless advocates decried the city’s lack of adequate hand-washing stations, showers, and water accessibility for its burgeoning homeless population. 

“There’s no resource that is enough in Los Angeles in our current situation. I’ve been crying out for a FEMA-like response to a FEMA-like disaster for years,” said Andy Bales, the CEO of Union Rescue Mission. “There’s just no way to keep up with temporary fixes for that many people. A stadium full of people without any access to restrooms, water services, showers.”

As local governments across the country scramble to provide for homeless people, cities are converting convention centers into makeshift shelters. In Phoenix, where the temperature has already soared to more than 110 degrees, hourly buses transport homeless individuals to a convention center, where they receive meals and water. (Phoenix officials did not respond when asked how authorities ensured social distancing during transit.) At night, though, the convention center closes for cleaning, and those sleeping on the streets still lack shelter. 

Advocates stressed that the city’s actions, while needed during this crisis, only serve as stopgaps to addressing the affordable housing crisis driving homelessness. In Los Angeles, some people who were placed in hotels are beginning to return to the streets. New York City has not announced how long it will keep people in hotels.

“The fact that we have this shelter system that is bursting at the seams and that we have about 60,000 New Yorkers sleeping in the DHS shelter system each night, really highlights the underlying issue of homelessness,” Simone said. “It is very difficult to meet every person’s needs in a system that’s bursting at the seams. So yes, we need to be moving people into places that are cool and safe this summer. But we also need to redouble our efforts to build more truly affordable housing.”