Efforts Increase To Protect Homeless Population In Extreme Heat

Published: Friday, June 17, 2016 - 2:01pm
Updated: Monday, June 27, 2016 - 9:10pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Large bins of bottles are placed around the CASS shelter.

In response to the mega-ridge this weekend, air conditioners will be cranked up and people will take refuge indoors. But not everyone can find shelter from the heat so easily, especially those who are homeless.

At 3 p.m. each day, Central Arizona Shelter Services, better known as CASS, opens its doors. On a recent day, a line extended outside in the sun as people wait to enter through security and finally get some relief in the air conditioning.

“I’ve been in Phoenix seven years,” said Asiyah Abdul-Wali as she set her stuff, a backpack and canvas bag, down.

“You have to drink a lot of water," she said. "I found that out the first summer I was here. I passed out at the bus stop."

Now she knows better. She said she drinks 10 to 15 bottles of water a day, the small plastic kind. She gets them from CASS and sometimes other places.

“I usually carry two bottles with me everywhere I go,” she said. “No more because water’s heavy.”

And water is just the start to avoiding a relentless heat.

“In Maricopa County, the homeless population is 10 times more likely to die from a heat-related illness than the population at large,” said David Smith, a CASS spokesman.

The organization is ramping up a big water bottle donation drive, but the number of beds is always the same.

“We have 470 beds at CASS and every night they are full,” he said.

This is the case year-round, but in the summer, the number of people trying to get in is much higher. Smith said the overflow jumps up by a couple hundred people in hot months. They’re all looking for a respite and that’s just at night. During the day, they have to find other havens.

“You’re chased out of a lot of different places,” said Keith Janota, who stayed at CASS on a recent night. He said during the day, he walks through a city filled with air-conditioned buildings. Few are welcoming to him.

“You know, if you go to a business and try to cool off, and you have a backpack with you, they deem you homeless right away and security sends to watch you when you’re just trying to get a quick breath of cold air,” Janota said.

This is why in 2005, the Maricopa Association of Governments, or MAG, created the Heat Relief Network. It’s a unified effort to create spots in the Valley where anyone in need can get water and cool down. They’re libraries, non-profits, government buildings, churches and other locations. Abdul-Wali said she uses the maps they hand out to find where to go.

“It tells you all the little posts where they set up, and they give water, they give sunscreen, they give hats,” she said.

MAG is updating that map, because a few days ago 40 new locations joined the network. This weekend, the network’s emergency stations will open, too. 

Some people, like Janota, said they don’t know where to go beyond places such as CASS. What frustrates him most about the heat is that he feels stuck.

“You want to better yourself and go get a job, but you could die out there,” he said. “I’m diabetic, and if I don’t get enough water and make sure that my sugar levels are at the right spot, I could die out there.” 

Sometimes you have no choice but to go outside, however miserable it is. That’s what Linda Morris and the congregation at First Pentecostal Church realized. The south Phoenix church joined the Heat Relief Network years ago, and Morris said they don’t get that many people coming to them for heat relief.

“So we go looking for them periodically,” she said. “Load up the coolers with cold water, and just drive the streets and find people who are out.”

They bring the refuge to people where they’re at. 

“When you see people at bus stops, and you know it’s 110, 115 degrees, and they’re sitting there... They have to wait for the bus. Why not stop and give them a cool drink of water?”

It’s one of the best survival tools in the sweltering heat. The people the reporter spoke with are worried about this weekend.

When highs creep up toward 120 degrees, carrying an extra water or putting on some more sunscreen only does so much. On days like that the most important thing is that everyone has somewhere to go to get out of the heat.

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