Heat Emergencies and Homelessness: A Crisis within a Crisis

Written by: Chandra Crawford, Christina Miller

This past year has been exceptionally difficult for people experiencing homelessness. For starters, they faced increased vulnerability to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions, lack of access to proper medical care, and reliance on group settings, such as shelters and encampments.

But we also know that homelessness was on the rise even before the pandemic. According to the most recent data available from HUD, the number of individual adults experiencing homelessness grew by seven percent on a given night in 2020, with some of the most vulnerable people with disabilities leading the increase. It is also both noteworthy and troubling that for the first time since HUD began the Point-in-Time count, the number of single adults living outside exceeded the number of single adults in shelters.

If all this weren’t enough, in recent weeks a dangerous heat wave took over much of the West Coast, sending temperatures into triple digits. Some of the areas with the highest unsheltered rates in the nation – including regions in California, Washington, and Oregon – were hit with particularly brutal heat waves. In many of these communities, there was not sufficient infrastructure to keep the broader population safe from the heat. This is to say nothing of the dangers faced by those living unsheltered, and specifically of the aging homeless population, who will struggle with exacerbated chronic health issues, appropriate storage of vital medications, and overall increased risks from dehydration.

Although the media didn’t extensively cover the impact of the extreme heat on people experiencing homelessness, local homeless providers and advocates jumped into action. Hydration centers were set up and outreach workers across cities worked feverishly to hand out necessities like water, popsicles, and cooling rags to people in dire need.

Undoubtedly, this cycle will continue this summer. Then, we will enter into hurricane season, and not long after, the extreme cold of the winter.

Throughout them all, people experiencing homelessness will be in true danger.

And that’s because homelessness is an emergency all year long.

When does the time come when and local, state, and federal leaders recognize that seasonal solutions aren’t sufficient? And at what point will our leaders recognize that broad investments in housing are exactly what is required in order to reduce our reliance on emergency solutions?

Given the year-round realities that face homeless households, communities should consider the following actions:

  • Leverage their learnings from COVID-19 to better integrate their city/county emergency management departments with their homeless response systems. This will help emergency resources to be rapidly deployed to people who are unsheltered, and can help them develop plans for a more robust infrastructure to accommodate all sorts of emergencies, and not just “winter beds.”
  • Bring in multi-sector solutions. Homeless service providers are crucial to life-saving efforts, but so are public health workers, fire fighters, and city workers who maintain roads or parks. If there is a focused effort to coordinate these groups with the homelessness system, any one of these them can identify a homeless person in distress and act with an appropriately informed response. Environmental justice advocates also recognize that housing insecurity and climate change are linked as we brace ourselves for more climate refugees. We must make ending homelessness a core goal of diverse sector partners.
  • Ensure emergency investments are synched to long-term solutions. Of course, we must meet people’s immediate needs by ensuring they are hydrated and protected from dangerous heatwaves, but emergency investments alone will never solve the crisis. To the extent possible, every emergency response must have a bridge to stabilization and permanent solutions. And that has to include a pathway to permanent housing.

This summer, the city of Fresno, CA kicked off an effort to house 100 unsheltered people into housing during its current heat wave. We applaud the creativity and the resolve of this effort, and we are certain that housing will dramatically change the life of each person served during this heat emergency.

But mostly, we look forward to a time when people are housed with exactly this kind of urgency… not because the heat is the emergency, but because homelessness is.