Sun-scorched Phoenix takes more heart for its homeless

The heat wave hitting the Sun Belt's homeless population is being met with new rigor.

Bottles of water don't last long these days at the Lodestar Day Resource Center in downtown Phoenix. One homeless person after another grabs an ice-cold bottle, untwists the cap, and drains it in an instant.

"That's so good," says Nicholas Travis, who is living at a nearby shelter while working to get his life back on track after a stint in jail. "They keep us well stocked."

Water is a precious commodity in Arizona generally, but for the homeless, access to it can become a matter of life or death. With much of the West sizzling – temperatures in Phoenix have climbed above 110 degrees F. for 12 straight days, the third-longest such heat wave in state history – people living on the street are at just as much risk from exposure to the elements as they are in the Northeast during the harsh blasts of winter.

"Living outside, whether summertime or wintertime, is both dangerous and life-threatening to the homeless," says Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. "Phoenix," he adds, "has had a sorry history in dealing with the issue."

That's changing, say experts in Arizona. After 30 homeless people died during a similar hot streak in 2005, officials and faith-based groups in the Phoenix area redoubled efforts to coordinate services for the homeless, ensuring that they have access to shelter, water, and food during the most dangerous times of day.

"The community responded," says Jacki Taylor of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness. "And not just in Phoenix. There's been a statewide effort to reach out and help care for our men, women, and children on the streets."

In 2006 – the year the National Coalition for the Homeless designated Phoenix as the 17th meanest city in the US (out of 200) for how it treats the homeless – about 7,300 homeless people lived in the metro area, according to Ms. Taylor's group. The number statewide was 14,960.

Phoenix has added hydration stations and "low-demand centers" for women, men, and families, says Taylor. These large, cooled rooms have cots or mats on the floor to temporarily house people who can't find spots in permanent shelters.

The United Methodist Outreach Ministry (UMOM), which runs the centers for women and families, is full this summer. Calls from families seeking shelter have roughly doubled since the heat wave struck, says Nichole Churchill, community relations manager for UMOM.

Much of the West is sitting under a high-pressure system that is causing record highs from Arizona to Idaho. Arizona, though, has been in the center of that high, says Valerie Meyers, a forecaster with the National Weather Service's Phoenix office, which has issued an extreme heat advisory for the region.

The Lodestar Day Resource Center, where cases of water are served at regular intervals, is part of a two-year-old campus of facilities for homeless people that serves as a model for the nation, says David Bridge of Central Arizona Shelter Services. CASS provides a shelter with 400 beds on the campus: 300 for men and 100 for women. There's a St. Vincent de Paul relief group that serves breakfast and lunch, and Andre House, which serves dinner. The campus also includes a full-service dental clinic, a mental health clinic, a substance abuse clinic, and Veterans Administration staff.

"Our 400 beds are maxed out every night," says Mr. Bridge. After the 30 deaths in 2005, CASS opened an emergency overflow shelter – a big room with 300 mats for sleeping on the floor – across the street. Lately, that's maxed out, too.

At the North Hills Church complex on Phoenix's northern fringes, which also opened after the 2005 crisis, 50 homeless men, women, and children sit in a darkened, cooled room after dining on barbecue-beef or pastrami sandwiches, chocolate cake, milk, and lots of water.

"We go through about six cases [35 bottles per case] of water per day," says volunteer Earl Brightman, director of the North Hills Church facility. It provides shelter, water, two hot meals, showers, and clothing to 50 people per day, on average. The shelter opened June 4 and will close at the end of September. Last year, it served 277 people over the entire season. During the first four weeks of this season, it has served 500, says Mr. Brightman.

"This place is a gift from God," says a middle-age man who didn't want to give his name. He lives in a nearby wash.

How to help: water drive

Valley of the Sun United Way

1515 East Osborn Rd.,

Phoenix, AZ 85014

(602) 631-4841 phone

(602) 776-3341 fax

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