AZ Central: Unsheltered and unhoused in the heat: ‘The urgency now is greater than it’s ever been’

Vicky Asplaugh and her husband, David, have been staying outside the Human Services Campus for more than six months. 

Back in early January, Vicky, 61, was hospitalized for five days with pneumonia. It was the first time she ever had gotten pneumonia, and she thinks she got it from sleeping without a bed out in the cold. 

“They didn’t have enough beds and I had to sleep outside the center,” she said. “I was terrified being out there, and it was really cold.”

Vicky and her husband are still living there, but now they’re dealing with a very different crisis: the heat.  

Phoenix’s hot summers are manageable for those who are housed and have access to indoor cooling facilities. But for the unhoused — people who are spending their days and nights outdoors with little respite — triple-digit days can quickly become life-threatening. 

“Heat’s deadly every year in Phoenix,” said Dr. Christopher Pexton, medical director at Circle the City, a health care provider for people experiencing homelessness. With prolonged exposure to the heat, “it can get to the point where people get heatstroke, which is literally when their internal temperature gets so hot that their organs don’t function.” 

Last year, a record 307 people died due to the heat in Maricopa County, and more than 40% of them were people experiencing homelessness. Researchers estimate that people who are unhoused are at 200 to 300 times higher risk of heat-associated deaths than the rest of the population. 

This year, there have already been six heat deaths confirmed and 62 under investigation as of June 18, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. That’s likely an undercount of the true number, advocates say. 

Even with more heat relief funding, emergency shelter space, and relentless community organizing to fill in outreach gaps, many advocates are more worried than ever about where the death toll will be by the end of the summer. As the number of people who fall into homelessness increases as pandemic safety nets expire, they believe so will the number of people who fall through the cracks of the existing homelessness services system. 

“From my perspective, the urgency now is greater than it’s ever been,” said Ash Uss, executive director of From the Ground Up, a community-based organization fighting homelessness. “For anyone on the street, this has always been a crisis, but the quantity of people struggling right now is unbelievable,” she said. 

David (left) and his partner Vicky Alspaugh (right) sit in a shaded area at Human Services Campus on Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Phoenix. The center has a number of shaded areas to mitigate the dangers of prolonged sun exposure for unhoused residents, especially during the summer.

In early June, about 900 people were living unsheltered in the blocks surrounding the Human Services Campus’ Brian Garcia Welcome Center in an area where they can stay and access a number of resources and social services from nonprofits. It’s known as “The Zone”.  

This is on top of the 819 beds that area already fill up across five indoor shelter areas near The Zone, according to a Human Services Campus capacity count from June 12. 

The roughly 900 people currently is a slight decrease from March and April, when there were more than 1,000 people living outside the shelters, but still triple the number of people from a year ago, when about 300 people were living in The Zone in July 2021, according to data from weekly street outreach counts.

Now, wailing sirens have become an everyday reality in The Zone.

“The way ambulances are coming and going in The Zone while we’re out there — we’ll see half a dozen ambulances come out — it’s terrifying,” said Eric Brickley, event manager for Feed Phoenix. Brickley, who goes by Half, conducts outreach in The Zone any day it is hotter than 115 degrees. 

In the past few years, homelessness has soared everywhere in the Phoenix area, not just downtown. During COVID-19, the number of unhoused people skyrocketed, growing to 5,029 in 2022 from 3,767 in 2020, about a 33% increase, according to the latest available point-in-time count conducted in January.

In addition, Phoenix is experiencing longer and hotter summers than ever before. In the past five decades, there are now, on average, nine more days of the year when Phoenix logs temperatures over 110 degrees.

Rapidly rising rents, the expiration of pandemic protections like eviction moratoriums, and a lack of affordable housing have created a perfect storm that has put an increasing number of people at risk of homelessness, advocates say. 

From July 2020 to 2021, Arizona had five of the top 15 cities that experienced the fastest population growth, with Maricopa County being the sixth-fastest growing county, according to census data. 

Meanwhile, rent hikes of anywhere from $200 to $800 a month are continuing to squeeze out low-income tenants who have few options to fall back on. Evictions, too, are almost back to their pre-pandemic highs.

“It’s all so interconnected,” Uss said. “We’re one of the fastest-growing counties yet one of the least affordable places to live.”

‘I cannot handle another summer in the heat’

Vicky Asplaugh gets in line every morning outside of the Brian Garcia Welcome Center, queuing up for a chance to sleep indoors on a mat in one of the several makeshift or overnight shelters at the Human Services Campus. 

She spends most of the day under one of the shaded canopies at the campus, waiting, with some of her possessions next to her at all times.

“I’m scared I’m going to get heat exhaustion because I’ve had that before,” Asplaugh said of the time that she spends outside during the day. “You can get it if you don’t drink enough water.” 

The Human Services Campus is an umbrella organization for a number of social service and shelter providers. There are emergency shelters with actual beds, such as Central Arizona Shelter Services, as well as makeshift day shelters like the one offered at St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room, where mats are laid out for people to cool down on. 

A few large shade structures line the edges of the campus, but there are still hundreds of people staying along the streets farther out, along Madison Street between Ninth and 13th avenues. 

Ann Paskwietz brings her dogs inside the Respiro structure at Human Services Campus on Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Phoenix. The structure offers unhoused residents an enclosed air-conditioned area with a hundred beds.

Tents, tarps, shopping carts full of personal belongings, suitcases and makeshift furniture line a couple of blocks there, surrounded by office and industrial buildings, and very little shade. 

“I cannot handle another summer in the heat,” said Dana Faulkinbury, who found an apartment through a housing voucher the day before she spoke to The Arizona Republic. “I don’t know what all these people in the tents are going to do this summer.”

An increasing number of people who fall into homelessness are also older, experiencing homelessness for the first time, or have several medical conditions.

Many of the older patients Pexton treats at his clinic are more vulnerable to the effects of the heat because of chronic conditions like kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes. Their conditions make them a lot more sensitive to changes in temperature, and decreased mobility makes it harder for them to get to cooling stations, Pexton said. 

“We’re being a lot more aggressive with treatments and making sure people have the right medications, correct places to store them, and educational resources to manage those conditions,” he said. “But it’s sort of like we’re trying to outpace a wave and it’s hard to keep up.”

Community organizations step in to help

On Arizona’s hottest days, Feed Phoenix, a community support organization dedicated to ending food and hunger insecurity in Phoenix, tries to meet unhoused, unsheltered individuals where they are.

“We focus our efforts down in that area because the industrial aspect of the area really intensifies the temperature, and then you’re at the asphalt,” Brickley said. “So we’re bringing out ice, water and Gatorade. Anything that can decrease people’s temperature.”  

After spending four hours prepping and washing new water bottles and stocking up on Gatorade and ice, they bring it down to The Zone, and anywhere from six to 20 people will distribute it. “It takes us about 2 to 3 hours to get about a half a mile, walking all these blocks, driving and towing trailers or wagons and whatever we can do to maximize feet on the ground with this lifesaving stuff.”

Year-round, the organization hosts recurring community support events to provide food, water, hygiene items, clothing and more. During the summer, heat is a “distinct, severe crisis,” Brickley said. 

“The best resource would be housing,” he said. “And then to step it down would be a safe space for people to exist, shaded and comfortable away from the sun. Those things aside, we start to look at those other materials like handheld goods, which are not a solution for anyone. But if we just keep stepping it down, it’s a tent, a tarp. Coolers.”

Brickley acknowledges that tents and tarps are temporary fixes but realizes any shade, no matter the durability, can make a life or death difference. That could mean erecting a shaded structure on private property and decreasing the temperature in that shaded structure.

“That could literally be a fan and a $40 dollar Walmart pop up,” he said. “That with some ice or some water is going to change the direction of someone’s existence who is currently suffering heat stroke to be able to live on another day.”

Snow cones and a ride to the clinic

Just past noon on a recent Friday, Austin Davis, the leader of AZ Hugs for the Houseless, an initiative of Arizona Jews for Justice, pulls into the Tempe Beach Park parking lot in a silver minivan. It is 103 degrees, and he begins to unload two jugs of ice water and a couple of coolers of plastic water bottles. 

At picnic tables in a shaded area next to Luis Gonzalez Field, he and a volunteer from Shot in the Dark AZ scoop snow cones — using a Gatorade jug full of shaved ice that Water ‘n Ice filled up for $20 — and hand them out to unhoused, unsheltered individuals. There are two flavors, strawberry and green apple, but the most popular choice by far is “a little bit of both.” 

This is only a small portion of Austin’s busy day, the schedule of which is constantly changing as he fields phone calls from unhoused friends with special requests for a ride to a clinic, for a referral to a detox center, for a tent, for art supplies. After he’s done serving snow cones, he’ll hike down to the river bottom to bring spray bottles and ice water to people living in encampments who he noticed didn’t make it up to the park. His day typically lasts eight to 10 hours. 

Nancy Gardner (left) and Diana Carreon (right) rest inside the Respiro structure at Human Services Campus on Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Phoenix. Gardner has lived inside the air-conditioned structure for three weeks. She become unhoused when she was evicted by her landlord because she was not able to pay rent after recovering from stage four colon cancer.

Without transportation or a phone, it can be difficult for people to navigate the heat relief resources available, he said.

“Last summer when we were doing this work, one thing that I really found to be true is that there are a lot of folks who are not close to (heat-relief) services,” Davis said. “There may be cooling centers, but if you’re a mile or two away from one and you have a physical disability, or even if you’re just feeling the heat exhaustion, it’s really difficult to get to those resources.”

On a recent day, he said he spent a good amount of time during the hottest part of the day “just driving around the Valley, going to canals and alleyways and bridges and little encampments and actively trying to find people.”

When he finds someone who is experiencing heat exhaustion, he’ll begin to spray them with lukewarm water in order to avoid shocking them. The water gradually grows colder and colder until it’s ice cold, he said.

“I’ve had situations where I’ll have someone feeding someone water and electrolytes while I’m spraying them down for 20 to 30 minutes,” he said.

In more severe cases, he’ll drive people to the hospital. 

With an $8,600 grant they are set to receive from Phoenix District 7 Councilmember Yassamin Ansari’s office, one of AZ Hugs’ next projects is to turn Austin’s minivan into a mobile cooling unit.

“Hopefully within this month, we’re going to be putting solar-powered generators in the van and fans, misting units, air conditioning units.”

City solutions expand for heat relief

Last year, Phoenix was criticized after struggling to find a last minute replacement — out-of-circulation city buses that functioned as mobile cooling centers — for the Phoenix Convention Center, which provided heat relief to hundreds of people in the summer of 2020 but closed its doors as a cooling center in 2021. 

This year, Ansari said she’s worked proactively with the city to provide heat relief and shelter in her district, well before the summer heat arrived. 

Four new shade structures and three more shade structures with an evaporative cooling at the Human Services Campus, a 100-bed “sprung structure,”  an enclosed and air conditioned shade structure that can serve 120 people during the day downtown, and a new overnight shelter model serving 200 people at 28th and Washington streets were among some of the new investments made this year, according to Ansari. 

Sheila Morton, of Texas, spends time inside the Respiro structure at Human Services Campus on Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Phoenix. The structure offers unhoused residents an enclosed air-conditioned area with a hundred beds.

Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus, credits the dip in the number of unsheltered people downtown to the opening and ramping up of those new shelters, several of which opened in the past two months. 

This is also Phoenix’s first summer with an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, which was introduced in October as the first of its kind in the nation. 

“Our heat relief outreach teams are working more than they ever have before,” said David Hondula, the director of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. “We’ve increased the number of shifts that we’re doing by a factor of about 40 from last year to this year.”

“These teams have case managers from the city’s homeless services division who can guide people to cooling centers and initiate conversations about IDs, showers, rehab, and all of the other strategies that are really what we need to be focusing on and helping folks get off the streets.”

This is also the first time the city has directly allocated supplies to community organizations. “By the time the summer is done, it’ll be more than $600,000 in supplies distributed to and through community organizations to help protect community members when it’s hot,” Hondula said. “Not only supplies that help people like water bottles, chlorine towels, hats, misters, etc., but also supplies that can help organizations do their own work, like wagons, insulated backpacks, in some cases evaporative coolers for their locations, and certainly more signage for public cooling centers.”

Hondula said that the city accounts for more than 50 of the heat relief network sites, including all of its libraries and many of its parks, recreational facilities, and senior and community centers. 

Many of these cooling centers are operated on business hours, but the heat doesn’t end at 5 p.m. “So we’re seeing a lot of creativity with folks in some cases hiring new staff or getting grants to run their buildings, run their air conditioners, after those traditional business hours to help meet the demand at those other times of day.” 

Band-Aid fixes or root cause solutions?

James Fenical was staying in an apartment with his son, nephew and a friend. But at the beginning of the year, Fenical fell into homelessness after being evicted. 

“My friend Gary and I have been staying at the park since January 10 when I got evicted from my apartment for having too many people in it,” said Fenical, who is staying at the shelter at 28th and Washington with his two dogs, Duke and Shadow. 

“There’s so much homelessness now. Do you know the cost of rent now? We’re looking for an apartment, and we found an apartment for $900 plus utilities, for a studio,” said Fencil, who has a budget of $600 a month, a fixed amount of money that he receives from homeless services provider Community Bridges Inc. 

Despite the ramping up of responses for heat relief and temporary shelter, advocates say they are “basic needs” responses to a much broader public health and housing crisis. 

“Heat relief stations, while they may provide some respite, they may save some lives, those are Band-Aids. Emergency shelters are Band-Aids. They’re meant to be temporary,” Schwabenlender said.

At the root of the existing homelessness crisis is a lack of stable and permanent housing, she said. “It’s much more challenging to help someone resolve homelessness than it is to keep people housed. So how do we allow them to stay where they already are?”

In metro Phoenix, where wage increases have fallen far behind rent increases, there is little that low-income tenants or tenants on fixed incomes can do other than move out or lose their homes.

“If you are on a fixed income, if you are a single mom working minimum wage jobs, if you are the majority of people who don’t make 100 grand or more a year, you’re screwed,” said Stacey Champion, a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness. “The majority of people are one catastrophic event away from becoming homeless.”

Hondula said, “There are so many folks new to homelessness in Phoenix,” adding that ultimately, quality housing is the solution to heat vulnerability.

“We have heartbreaking conversations with folks who are just 100 or 200 yards away from the door to a public cooling center or from a cold water fountain on the outside of a city building who just weren’t aware that those resources were there, because they just got to town or just had to relocate where they’re set up.”

Read this article on AZ Central.

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