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U.S. homeless suffer disproportionate impact of heat wave North America

2024-06-27 10:02:10Source: Xinhua

Members of the homeless community along 5th Street begin to stir in the early morning along Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 14, 2024. /CFP

June 26, 2024 -- The intense heat wave that recently shattered temperature records across the United States is subsiding this week in parts of the country, temporarily bringing relief to Americans. However, it continues to disproportionately affect the homeless, who have far fewer means to escape the searing weather.


Despite the relief in the northeastern part of the United States, people from the Plains to the Southeast continue to suffer from heat waves, with temperatures reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 37.8 degrees Celsius), the National Integrated Heat Health Information System said on Monday.


High temperatures and humidity will increase the risk for heat-related illnesses to occur, particularly for those working, living or participating in outdoor activities, stated the National Weather Service (NWS). Considering the early arrival of high temperatures this year, experts expect the number of heat-related deaths across the country to exceed last year's toll of 2,302.


"For those of us working to end homelessness, the focus sharpens on how extreme temperatures affect those without stable housing," Texas Homeless Network (THN), a non-profit organization working to prevent and end homelessness, warned in April. "The question of how to assist those without access to a cool, safe space during heat waves is pressing."


According to the THN, there are a devastatingly large number of ways in which the extreme weather caused by climate change disproportionately affects people experiencing homelessness, who are "200 times more likely to die from heat-related causes than sheltered individuals."


Extreme heat events can trigger a variety of heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke, which can be fatal. Unhoused individuals who are exposed to the elements for long periods without relief are at an increased risk of experiencing heat-related illness and death.


In addition, extreme heat can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions that are statistically more prevalent among people experiencing homelessness, including respiratory issues, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. Unhoused people are also at increased risk of third-degree burns from the sun and hot surfaces, as well as severe dehydration.


"People who are unsheltered during heat waves may find it more difficult to sleep. High temperatures make it difficult to preserve food, leading to spoilage and potential illness in those who do not have refrigeration," said the THN on its website.


Amid dangerous heat, "the homeless are usually the first to die," Yale Climate Connections, a news service on climate change, reported in 2023. The U.S. public at large "tends to look away from the poorest of the poor even under the best of circumstances. When they're actually dying on streets, the need to look away is nearly impossible to resist," it added.


Another important factor contributing to the high rate of heat-related mortality among the homeless is the lack of medical supplies, said Mark Bueno, outreach medical director at Circle the City, a nonprofit aid group that focuses on the homeless population in the state of Arizona. "People die because they can't reach a doctor or a pharmacy."


It's challenging for the homeless, who lack cars or other means of transportation, to walk several miles to reach doctors for treatment in temperatures around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius), Bueno explained. The same difficulty applies to filling prescriptions, as many unhoused individuals may not be able to obtain the medicines they need during the scorching summer.


To make the scenario worse, the number of homeless people in the United States has been increasing and exceeded 650,000 in 2023, the highest since reporting began in 2007, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The government keeps failing to catch up with enough care for the homeless, let alone protect them from sizzling weather.


Forty percent of the homeless live in streets without shelter, abandoned buildings or other places not meant for human habitation, said the HUD. "Homeless people not only struggle to survive, but also face an increasing risk of criminal conviction." Food and medicine shortages, rising suicide rates, drug and substance abuse and extreme weather combine to deteriorate their situations.


Excessive heat causes more weather-related deaths in the United States than hurricanes, flooding, and tornadoes combined. In addition to the confirmed tolls, many deaths are not confirmed as heat-related due to the stigma of homelessness and lack of family connections.


"The heat-related deaths of people living on the streets are doubly invisible," said the Yale Climate Connections report, dubbing extreme heat a "silent killer."