Heat-relief shelters are helpful, but their hours of operation limit effectiveness

PHOENIX – Outside the Burton Barr Central Library on a sweltering summer afternoon, Yahshua McDuffie offers free water and soda from his ice chest. It’s 112 degrees, and the sun is baking the blacktop of the library parking lot.

“A lot of people out here suffer from heat stroke,” McDuffie said. “I’m trying to prevent that, do my part.”

McDuffie is one of the scores of individuals, groups and organizations throughout metro Phoenix that have come together to offer some sort of heat relief – usually through air-conditioned cooling stations and hydration centers – to homeless people and other residents.

But heat deaths continue to rise. As of Aug. 24, Maricopa County has confirmed 32 heat-related deaths and is investigating 134 more. After a dip from 2012-13, heat-related deaths have steadily climbed each year since 2014: 61; 84; 154; 179; and 182 last year.

For the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in downtown Phoenix, the Burton Barr library is the best climate-controlled environment they have access to. It’s one of scores of heat-relief locations, emergency heat-relief stations and hydration stations in the Heat Relief Network, which is a cooperative public-private effort of the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Just stepping through the library doors, patrons are hit with a wave of chilled air and the cooling sound of the large water feature. Just inside the lobby, they’re greeted by security guard Chester Jones. Rather than chase the homeless away, his team helps them.

“We do wellness checks, you know, ‘How you doing? Are you OK?’” Jones said. “If they really have some issues, we’ll get little bags of ice to give them.”

During the hottest parts of the year, Jones said the library has regular visitors he comes to know and befriend. One of those is Jimmie Bigthumb, a retiree who spends his days in the library to save on electric bills.

“It’s too hot for me at home. I live in a trailer, so I come here most of the day to save on my electric bill,” said Bigthumb, who estimates the tactic saves him $150 a month.

He and hundreds of other patrons charge up their phones, read newspapers, use the internet and enjoy the cool quiet.

That is, until 5 or 6 p.m., when the library – and most other designated heat refuge centers – closes for the night.

An expensive effort

Most of these heat-refuge stations are local businesses, churches, charitable organizations and community centers that are available during business hours.

Operating into the evening adds complications most businesses and organizations aren’t prepared to deal with.

“What’s tricky with the cooling stations, once you get into being open into those late evening hours, they then become classified as homeless shelters,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, director of disease control for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “Homeless shelters take an entirely different level of resources to operate.”

In a 2017 study published in the journal “Weather, Climate, and Society,” researchers found that a majority of Maricopa County heat-refuge centers needed at least one additional staff member to operate effectively. Extra staffing on top of higher utility bills, bottles of water and other services add up to a lot of money.

Summer days are longer, extending time people are exposed to the deadliest heat. And even after the sun sets, temperatures can remain hazardous for hours.

“In an urban environment, we tend to think noon will be the hottest part of the day,” said Liza Kurtz, a Ph.D. candidate studying community response to extreme heat at Arizona State University. “The hotter parts of the day tend to be 4 to 5 (p.m.), and even 5 to 7 can still be extremely extremely hot.

“If you’re homeless, you might be exposed to temperatures still well over 90 or 95 during the nighttime. Your body never gets a period of respite or time to cool itself. And that can be very dangerous, particularly with people who already have existing conditions.”

So dangerous, in fact, that Sunenshine said not having access to air-conditioning could be an emergency.

“When it’s over 90 degrees, a fan is not enough,” she said. “If individuals don’t have AC functioning at home or they’re unable to pay their electric bill, it is important they actually go to a homeless shelter so they can sleep in a cooled environment.”

24/7 emergency shelters

Fire stations have been proposed as emergency heat shelters because they’re strategically located and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by trained emergency medical professionals. But only one firehouse in Maricopa County – Fire Station 301 in Surprise – is designated as a 24/7 emergency heat shelter.

Several times during his 48-hour shifts, Capt. Ryan Flinn loads a 10-gallon trash barrel with ice and bottled water, then secures it to a column with a bicycle cable lock. The water and shade will be there all night, even when his crew is out on a call.

“Some of the people in need may not have shelter and the ability to find water,” Flinn said. “It’s not just when the sun’s out during the day, beating down on people. It’s all hours of the day. If they need a drink at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s available for them.”

There used to be signs and banners on the firehouse advertising the heat shelter. The signs, along with several other trash barrels and hundreds of bottles of water, have all been stolen — often within hours of being set out.

Firefighters and paramedics at the station have spent their own money to buy the barrels and water, and they’re at a loss about what to do. On one hand, Battalion Chief Julie Moore said the program is important and in line with the department’s mission. On the other hand, operating a fire department isn’t cheap, and budgets are tight.

“If this is one small step we can do with the support of the community and their donations to provide for the less fortunate in the community so they can stay safe through these hot summer months, it’s a great thing to do,” Flinn said.

Other fire departments in the Valley don’t open their stations like this. Mesa Fire & Medical Department partners with the city’s parks and recreation department to provide heat relief services. Representatives from Phoenix Fire and Tempe Fire did not return requests for comment.

Sunenshine said adequate shelter is key to reversing this deadly trend.

“If I were going to wave a magic wand and prevent all heat-related deaths, I would make sure there were places to sleep … where people could go to cool off from the heat so that they weren’t in a situation where they could get heat exhaustion,” she said.

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