Heat wave: How cities are trying to help the homeless survive

Cities from Lansing, Mich., to Boston are sending out street patrols with water and opening cooling centers to make sure homeless residents are cared for during the heat wave.

Steve Ruark/AP/File
Waxter Senior Center was designated as a cooling station by Baltimore officials during a June 9 heat wave. Other cities are opening cooling centers this week to help the homeless deal with a new heat wave.

With a cooler full of ice and cold drinks in the trunk of her car, Joan Jackson Johnson is heading out onto the streets of Lansing, Mich., to help the homeless cope during the mounting heat wave.

An excessive heat warning might be in effect until 8 p.m. Friday, and the heat index might top 100 degrees, but many on the streets of Lansing "don’t believe that the hot weather can bother them,” says Ms. Johnson, director of human relations for the city.

But Johnson has been around long enough that, she says, “they believe me.”

Johnson's efforts are just one example of how cities from the Midwest to the Northeast are preparing to help some residents who are at the greatest risk from the heat wave. Many of the states in this region are experiencing heat indices – the summer equivalent of wind chill – above 100 degrees through the weekend.

In Nashville, members of the Rescue Mission will be distributing tens of thousands of bottles of water as part of their "hot patrol." Meanwhile in Boston, teams comprised of homeless outreach providers, church ministries, emergency-response officials, and police are sweeping areas where the homeless congregate to monitor the health of people on the street.

The homeless can be particularly vulnerable to heat waves because they cannot easily take steps to protect themselves, such as staying in air-conditioned places, avoiding direct sun, and drinking plenty of water. Moreover, heat waves are often not perceived as being as dangerous as cold weather.

“The heat is a much more dangerous situation, because people think it’s not as big of a problem and they can get through it,” says Cliff Tredway, director of communication and marketing at the Nashville Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization in the middle Tennessee region.

In addition to its hot patrol, Rescue Mission staff members will also be encouraging individuals to go to community centers in the area that have opened their doors as cooling centers.

In Lansing, city officials are distributing bottled water and asking businesses to put out large containers of ice water and cups.

The city declared 28 sites as cooling centers, and Lansing citizens can ride the public bus free of charge when the weather is hot to access these centers.

“With extreme temperatures, we make daily contact with the shelters, or many even twice a day, to make sure they open earlier and stay open later,” Jackson says. City officials also go beyond the city center and check for at-risk people.

Helping the homeless during a heat wave comes with its unique challenges.

“You’ve got people in the streets who aren’t in their right minds,” because of alcohol, drugs, or mental illness, says Mr. Tredway of the Nashville Rescue Mission. “Being intoxicated, combined with heat and dehydration, is just a terrible, terrible situation."

If a person appears ill or passed out, Boston city officials urge people to call 911 or the mayor’s 24-hour hotline – and not assume that the individual is “just drunk.”

“The general public can be eyes and ears for the rest of us,” says Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.

Boston outreach teams will be encouraging homeless individuals to seek air-conditioned shelters, and they will be distributing water and sunscreen. City pools are extending their hours, and organizations like the New England Center for Homeless Vets is accepting non-vets into their shelter during the heat advisory.

Any Bostonian can help the homeless during the heat, Mr. Greene suggests.

“It’s always a kindness if they offer someone water to drink or recommend that someone get out of the sun if they seem unaware of how hot they are.”

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