Record-Breaking Heat and The Homeless Population of the Western U.S.

The homeless often cannot escape the heat. As heatwaves become more prevalent, are heat-related disasters becoming the new normal? What are the government and other organizations doing to prevent heat-related tragedies, and how is the homeless population supported during this time?

Published on:

September 30, 2021

Record-Breaking Heat and The Homeless Population of the Western U.S.

Imagine: awakening to pouring sweat as sweltering nighttime temperatures make it impossible for you to sleep. This was the harsh reality for thousands of homeless individuals this summer as temperatures in the western United States climbed to record levels. And all while a global pandemic was happening around them.

As of mid-July, 2021 is on pace to be one of the hottest years on record in the western United States. Cities like Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia, experienced temperatures not seen in the area since records have been documented. Portland reached a sizzling 116° degrees Fahrenheit and Seattle reached an all-time record of 107°.

Record-Breaking Heat and The Homeless Population of the Western U.S.
Photo by Maranie Staab/Bloomberg

The massive heatwave that produced these record high temperatures inflicted heat-related deaths and injuries on the region. Over 700 heat-related deaths and over 2,000 heat-related incidents occurred over the span of June 25 to July 1.

I started to wonder how this unprecedented heatwave was affecting people, specifically the homeless, who often cannot escape the heat. I had other questions, like are these heat-related disasters becoming the new normal? Are these areas more prone to heatwaves? What are the government and other organizations doing to prevent heat-related tragedies, and how is the homeless population supported during this time?

In early June 2021, a ridge of high pressure began to build over the Rocky Mountains. The high pressure causes air to sink, decreasing the chance of cloud cover, wind, and rain, leading to dry weather conditions. With no clouds and minimal wind, this allows the sun to heat the ground to higher temperatures.

As the ridge of high pressure continued to hang over the Rocky Mountains, dry weather conditions began to intensify the drought, setting the stage for a record-breaking heatwave. 100% of the state of Utah reported severe drought, 99.9% reported extreme drought, and 69.7% reported exceptional drought, the highest-ranking on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Since moisture requires less energy to raise the temperature, this allows large portions of the western United States to approach and surpass record temperatures like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and California. The increasing dry temperatures and heat during the beginning of the month set the stage for a major heatwave during the end of June.

The exceptional heatwave of June 2021 covered many states in the northern and western U.S.
The exceptional heatwave of June 2021 covered many states in the northern and western U.S.

While areas like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Sacramento were experiencing  temperatures much higher than normal, these cities are generally considered “hot cities.” The average high temperature in Las Vegas for June is 102°; so while hitting 116° was well beyond average, for the month of August 2020, Las Vegas recorded 10 days above 110°.

A heatwave has a much greater impact in a city that rarely makes it to the 100s. The average high temperature in Seattle in June is 69°. According to the National Weather Service, the last time Seattle reached 100° was 2009, and the time before that was 1994. Seattle has hit 100°, or above, for an unprecedented three days straight in 2021 with a never-before-seen high temperature of 108°. Portland, OR reached 115°. The next closest day to that temperature in Portland was 107°, back in  1981.

Lastly, the ridge of high pressure encompassed the northern part of the Rocky Mountain Range, which included western Canada. The last time a city in Canada recorded a temperature above 110° was during the 1930s. On June 29, 2021, six reporting Canadian cities reached above 110°, with Lytton, British Colombia, reaching an all-time high temperature for Canada of 121°F. Heatwaves in “cool cities” have proven to be one of the deadliest natural disasters.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, excessive heat is responsible for the most heat-related fatalities in the United States during an average year. As temperatures rise, the risk of heat exhaustion, stroke, and other heat-related illnesses begin to climb. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 3,500 emergency room visits over the months of May and June, in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, with 80% occurring from June 25–30. Nearly 500 deaths have occurred in British Columbia, Canada as a result of the heatwave.

Why do heatwaves hit “cold cities” harder? This is because of their lack of preparedness for extreme warm-weather events. For a city with an average high temperature of 72° during the hottest month of the year (August), many residents of Seattle have adapted to life without air conditioning. According to the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, only 33% of Seattle’s housing units were cooled by central air or a room unit, significantly lower than the nation’s 89%.

San Francisco is the only metro city that comes close, at 36%. Seattle also has the third-largest homeless population in the United States. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates almost 12,000 homeless people living in the Seattle-Tacoma urban region. This creates a recipe for disaster during heatwaves, particularly during warm nights as individuals seek relief during the heat. Seattle stayed above 70° from June 25–29. With tragic situations, there is the opportunity for humanity to shine and overcome trials.

Various organizations have responded to extreme weather events by supplying to the homeless population food, water, shelter, and other materials.
Photo by Maranie Staab/Reuters

Various organizations have responded to extreme weather events by supplying to the homeless population food, water, shelter, and other materials. The Northwest Salvation Army Division extended their normal hours to allow homeless people to take shelter in their air-conditioned stores, as well as providing showers, food, and water. While many of the organizations like the Alchemist Community Development Center in Sacramento and the Center for Disease Control have also provided necessities, organizations like Brother’s Carters have found unique challenges due to the pandemic.

Due to COVID, some of the designated homeless areas within the central parts of Seattle, Portland, and Sacramento have been displaced from the cooling center. This has created a problem with the homeless being unable to utilize the facilities. The state of California has also limited the number of cooling centers as they try to contend with the coronavirus spread. The Poor People’s Campaign is providing transportation and disseminating food to many of the homeless locations for people unable to travel to the facility.

Another major difference between a heatwave and a cold wave is the type of materials needed to protect from the shelter. In cold waves, the homeless can be given materials to “bundle up." The designs of many homeless tents allow for warmth, many insulated. During a heatwave, this can turn many of the homeless tents into heat traps. When the homeless are unable to get to a cooling center or an air-conditioned building, they are forced to fend off the heat as best as they can.

Overall, the issue of heatwaves is complex. There is a battle of logic vs empathy. How do we stop the spread of COVID while providing shelter to as many people in need, as possible? One thing is certain: if humanity does not address the issue of climate change, the intensity and duration of these heatwaves and droughts will become more frequent, leading to more deadly events.

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