After deadliest summer on record, Maricopa County makes historic investments in heat relief

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Monday, May 22, 2023 - 4:45am
Updated: Friday, May 26, 2023 - 8:14am

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barbara gaeke
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Barbara Gaeke, 90, and her granddaughter, Amber Stilson, stand in their home in Sun City West. When their air conditioner broke, Gaeke and Stilson received help through a new county assistance program.

Barbara Gaeke has lived in a modest house in the retirement community of Sun City West for 30 years. She loves Arizona, and doesn’t mind the hot summers, as long as she can relax inside in her big recliner. But a few weeks ago, as temperatures started climbing to triple digits, Gaeke’s air conditioner stopped working. Gaeke is 90 years old with a number of health problems. She turned up the ceiling fans, but soon felt weak and nauseous.

“I was so sick because I was so hot,” Gaeke said. “I just couldn’t take the hot weather.”

Gaeke’s granddaughter, Amber Stilson, takes care of her full time. They rely on Gaeke’s small retirement income. Replacing an AC unit could cost more than $10,000.

“I was scared, really scared. It’s like a hopeless, helpless feeling,” Stilson said. “I was just afraid for her because she couldn’t afford it and there was no way she could live like this.”

Stilson started researching services that might be able to help and eventually ended up on the phone with a representative from Maricopa County who arranged for Gaeke’s air conditioner to be replaced free of charge.

Maricopa County’s air conditioner replacement program is one of several new initiatives the County Board of Supervisors has recently funded to mitigate the effects of heat. Summers in the Phoenix area have always been hot, but heat-related deaths in Maricopa County have been rising. Last summer was the deadliest on record. So this year, the county is spending more on heat relief than it ever has before in hopes of turning the trend around.

“We are further ahead of the game than we ever have been when it comes to addressing heat relief in our community,” Jacqueline Edwards, director of the county’s Human Services Department told KJZZ News.

jacqueline edwards
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Jacqueline Edwards is director of Maricopa County's Human Services Department.

Over the past year, the county has replaced about 500 AC units for vulnerable, low-income homeowners like Gaeke. They plan to replace another 500 to 600 in the months ahead.

“An air conditioning unit is not just nice to have, it’s essential,” Edwards said. “This could mean a matter of life and death.”

That’s not hyperbole. Last year a record 425 people in Maricopa County died because of heat. County analysis shows when heat deaths happened indoors, the majority of the time, the air conditioner was not working.

But most of the county’s heat deaths in recent years have occurred outdoors.

County officials say the biggest summer health threat is not just scorching temperatures, it’s that the number of unsheltered people in the region is triple what it was 10 years ago.

“It can become a dangerous situation for people,” said Danielle McMahon, associate chief operations officer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

In years of overseeing dining services at the organization’s Phoenix soup kitchens, McMahon said she has witnessed firsthand how the heat strains unsheltered people.

“People come in, they’re definitely in need of reprieve from the elements, they’re in need of water. It’s very hard to sleep at night when it’s so hot outside, so people are exhausted, physically, and mentally,” McMahon said.

This summer, the county is spending $2.4 million to partner with Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale, and other cities on heat relief for homeless residents. The county and cities involved plan to open daytime cooling shelters, fund street outreach teams, and pay for some hotel vouchers and transportation services.

McMahon’s dining hall is getting funding, too. Starting on Memorial Day, St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown Phoenix dining hall will open in the afternoons as a cooling center where unsheltered people can sit in the air conditioning and get a drink of water. Then in the evenings, staff and volunteers will fold up the dining tables and fill the building with 200 beds for overnight heat relief.

overnight heat shelter
Courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul
This summer, with funding from Maricopa County, St. Vincent de Paul's downtown dining hall will also operate as an overnight heat relief shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

“We just try to max out the capacity, keeping it safe, but we want to get as many people inside as we can,” McMahon said.

The dining hall has been used as a makeshift overnight shelter in the past, but it can only operate that way when outside funding is available.

This year the funding is massive. The county is putting nearly $14 million this summer toward this overnight cooling shelter, the homelessness outreach partnerships with Valley cities, and the AC replacement program. And the budget for heat relief is on top of approximately $500 million the Board of Supervisors has directed toward affordable housing and homelessness solutions since 2020. A huge increase, compared to just $1 million to $2 million the county might spend on homelessness programs in a typical year.

City governments and the state government have been making larger investments to reduce homelessness in recent years, too. And the efforts appear to be having some impact. Data from the latest Point-in-Time homelessness survey shows homelessness has continued to increase in the Phoenix metro area, but this year, as the region has grown its shelter capacity, people living in emergency shelters or transitional housing made up the majority of growth in the homeless population, while the number of people living on the streets fell slightly.

That shift makes McMahon feel more optimistic as temperatures begin to rise.

“I feel hopeful that there are more opportunities this summer than last for people to get inside,” McMahon said.

But most of these budget boosts are just temporary. The majority of Maricopa County’s spending on heat relief and homelessness solutions has come out of one-time pandemic aid dollars the county received from the federal government. And time will tell if this unprecedented spending will be enough to significantly reduce the number of heat deaths this summer.

Edwards hopes it will. And she hopes the county’s heat relief programs will be enough of a success that the county will continue to find ways to invest in some of them, even after federal aid runs out.

But she said, as she sees it, even getting just one more person out of the heat this summer will be a success.

“One more person served than what we were able to do last year is going to make a difference in our community,” Edwards said.

overnight heat shelter
Courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul
The majority of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County occur outdoors, often among unsheltered people. This summer the county is funding an overnight heat relief shelter at a St. Vincent de Paul dining hall.

Back in Sun City West, Barbara Gaeke said the county’s efforts have certainly made a difference for her.

“You don’t know what we went through,” Gaeke said.

When she learned the county would foot the bill to help her stay cool, stay healthy, and stay in her longtime home, she said, “I was so happy I could cry.”

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