Climate change’s growing impact on people experiencing homelessness

José Guadalupe Garcia is from Toluca, Mexico. When this photo was taken he was living on the streets of Southern California. CREDIT: FLICKR USER RUSSLOAR
José Guadalupe Garcia is from Toluca, Mexico. When this photo was taken he was living on the streets of Southern California. CREDIT: FLICKR USER RUSSLOAR

ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.

The seemingly unending and sometimes fatal heat waves gripping large portions of the United States this month can be bad for those who are able to find shelter indoors. It is even worse for those experiencing homelessness.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt by people across the planet, most of whom can seek shelter and use their resources to try to cope with heat waves, extreme downpours, stronger storms, more intense flooding, worse drought, and air pollution.

Those who lack shelter and even basic resources or support networks are already among the most vulnerable people on the planet, and when those stressors are made worse or more unpredictable by human-caused climate change, organizations struggle to keep up.

For decades, governments failed to recognize the high toll that heat takes on poor and homeless people

Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist who has examined how cities can “climate-proof” their residents, told ThinkProgress the first priority is “protecting homeless people during heat waves, or even in what now counts as ordinary summer weather in places like Phoenix.”

He noted how people experiencing homelessness face acute risks from extreme heat, perhaps even more than we currently realize due to underreporting.

“For decades,” he said, “governments failed to recognize the high toll that heat takes on poor and homeless people, particularly in the southwest. People would die of exposure but their deaths would never get classified as heat deaths. It took epidemiologists to point out that there’s nothing natural about a spike in mortality during hot weather events. It reflects a failure to understand and support vulnerable people.”

During heat waves, shelters see a spike in visitors. City emergency managers in Los Angeles — noting the particular threat to homeless populations — sounded the alarm during the historic heat wave the Southern California experienced last week.

The main immediate remedy is to seek shelter and air conditioning in libraries, churches, and city buses. Arizona’s Maricopa County organized a Heat Relief Regional Network to provide resources to vulnerable people to prevent heat-related deaths — it provides maps of cool refuge stations and hydration locations.

The other remedy is to drink plenty of water. But when you must carry all your possessions and supplies with you wherever you go, it can get hard to stay properly hydrated. Water is not light, and the need to refill bottles means staying close to services that offer a steady water supply.

This Tuesday, June 14, 2016 photo Mike Mcfarland, a volunteer at Redeemed Outreach Center, passes out free water bottles and bread to people who walk by in downtown Phoenix, AZ. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ryan Van Velzer
This Tuesday, June 14, 2016 photo Mike Mcfarland, a volunteer at Redeemed Outreach Center, passes out free water bottles and bread to people who walk by in downtown Phoenix, AZ. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ryan Van Velzer

“You have to drink a lot of water,” Asiyah Abdul-Wali told KJZZ in Phoenix. “I found that out the first summer I was here. I passed out at the bus stop. I usually carry two bottles with me everywhere I go. No more because water’s heavy.”

Good Samaritans in Lubbock, Texas made the local news when they handed out water to their neighbors experiencing homelessness during a brutal heat wave.

“It means a lot to us when we get water — we don’t get it that often anymore,” Sherri Flaming told KCBD in Texas earlier this month. “I lose just as many friends in the heat of the day as I did in the winter, if not more — the heat can be more dangerous.”

Lubbock has been in a heat wave for most of June, and hit 104 degrees that day.

Even though homeless populations face serious threats from cold emergencies, heat can be just as dangerous, as recent research suggests.

The CDC said that vulnerable populations such as the “homeless have a much higher risk of heat-related health problems than other people living in a population.”

One of the only academic examinations into the issue of the health of homeless populations and climate change was published in 2009 by researchers Brodie Ramin of the University of Ottowa and Tomislav Svoboda of the University of Toronto. Noting that as of 2009, “there have been no papers reviewing the impacts of climate change on the homeless population,” they sought to review existing research into exreme heat, air pollution, mosquito-bourne illness, and floods and storms.

They also looked at the comparative health benefits that climate change could bring in the form of milder winters. They found, however, that “most research has suggested that while there will be health gains, they will be minor and will be outweighed by the adverse health impacts of climate change.”

Because so much of their time is spent outside, homeless populations are more vulnerable to mosquito bites, meaning that as infectious diseases carried by mosquitoes spread into the increasingly warmer northern latitudes, they are more likely to catch a disease like West Nile, dengue fever, and Chikungunya.

Urban areas already suffering from the heat island effect will bear the brunt of these harsher heat events. CREDIT: EPA
Urban areas already suffering from the heat island effect will bear the brunt of these harsher heat events. CREDIT: EPA

Homeless people are more likely to occupy marginal areas, the researchers said, which are more vulnerable to environmental hazards like floods and storms. Air pollution mostly exists outside from vehicle exhaust and particulate matter, making those who can’t go inside more likely to suffer from lung and heart disease. And because the vast majority of homeless people live in cities, the urban heat island effect can magnify the disproportionate impacts heat waves can have on those who cannot easily seek relief.

The researchers concluded that because “homeless individuals have higher rates of underlying disease, greater exposure and poorer protection from the elements, and are more likely to occupy high-risk urban areas,” they could see “greater rates of illness and death due to increases in heat waves, air pollution, storms and floods, and vector-borne diseases resulting from climate change.”

Extreme weather events like storms, floods, and hurricanes can threaten entire cities, but people experiencing homelessness suffer disproportionately compared to the general population.

“Extreme weather events can overwhelm homeless shelters and other service agencies that support vulnerable people,” NYU’s Klinenberg said. “If evacuation is necessary, the homeless might not have a way out of town or a place to go, and they may not be welcome by those offering help. After a disaster, the homeless may also find themselves low on the priority list of who gets help, and the places that normally assist them will most likely have more to do than they can handle. That means the dislocation can last longer than it does for the rest of us.”

Lacking shelter does not just mean a deeper vulnerability to weather events and temperature. It also means more time outdoors, and in many places, including urban centers where pollution and emissions can become concentrated, this means people who spend nearly all their time outside breathe in dirty air.

“Self-reported rates of lung diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema in the homeless are double that of the general population,” the researchers said.

Indeed, a 2004 study in the journal Chest found that adverse environmental exposures contributed to a high prevalence of obstructive lung disease.

Climate adaptation measures that many cities are already pursuing can help address the worst climate impacts and could help homeless populations. Beyond efforts to reduce pollution in the first place, cities installing sea walls, porous concrete, trees to boost tree cover, and white roofs can all help cool cities and divert the worst of flooding and precipitation.

The federal government is beginning to take climate change impacts into consideration across many agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Harriet Tregoning, HUD’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Community Planning and Development told ThinkProgress how increasingly long and hot summers impact HUD’s work with vulnerable populations. “Persons experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to extreme heat because of their limited access to shelter,” she said. “That’s one reason that we’re starting to ask our grantees to look at how natural hazards, including those influenced by climate change, will impact our most vulnerable neighbors. We need smart policies and programs that adjust to changing conditions and target resources where they’re needed most.”

All of these trends will also be more likely to expand the number of people who are homeless around the world. In 2013, 22 million people became displaced due to natural disasters around the world — more than the number displaced by war. And if current emissions trends continue such that the planet warms by 4 degrees Celsius, a Climate Central report last year the accompanying sea level rise will flood areas home to half a billion people around the world.