Phoenix homeless people are exacerbating heat-induced health problems: NPR


Alicia Williams checks Paul Yager’s vital signs inside the mobile medical unit parked outside St. Vincent de Paul, a charity with a soup kitchen in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix, on August 9. Yager, 64, is homeless, lives in pre-existing conditions and has been awaiting housing assistance for two years.

Caitlin O’Hara for NPR


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Alicia Williams checks Paul Yager’s vital signs inside the mobile medical unit parked outside St. Vincent de Paul, a charity with a soup kitchen in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix, on August 9. Yager, 64, is homeless, lives in pre-existing conditions and has been awaiting housing assistance for two years.

Caitlin O’Hara for NPR

PHOENIX – It’s a hot morning in Phoenix and Paul Yager is having his vital signs checked at a mobile clinic that provides care for homeless patients. He is 64, HIV-positive and sleeps in a nearby park most nights. He credits this team with keeping him alive.

“I have a lot of life to live and, with God’s help, maybe I can live another 10 years,” Yager said.

But surviving the summers in Phoenix without shelter is difficult. In July, when temperatures here stayed above 110 for over a week, Yager said he collapsed and couldn’t get up for hours.

“I’m not okay anyway, so it’s just not okay – it’s not healthy for me to be out in this kind of weather,” Yager said.

No major city in the United States gets more triple-digit days than Phoenix. But that famous desert heat is harming more and more Arizona residents every year. The Phoenix metropolitan area recorded an average of 78 heat-associated deaths per year from 2005 to 2015, according to county records. But the death toll has hit a record every summer since 2016. Last year, the region recorded 339 deaths from unprecedented heat. This year is on track to be the deadliest ever. Proponents say the real concern isn’t that Arizona has too hot a climate, but that it doesn’t have enough homes.

“This is a really bad summer for us,” Dr. Kevin Foster, director of the Arizona Burn Center, told reporters in July.


Nina Gomez is a nonprofit Circle the City psychiatric nurse who provides health care to the homeless. Dehydration and exhaustion can be disastrous for mental health, says Gomez: “The stress of heat really exacerbates psychosis, and therefore it becomes much more difficult to get people to engage in any service.”

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Nina Gomez is a nonprofit Circle the City psychiatric nurse who provides health care to the homeless. Dehydration and exhaustion can be disastrous for mental health, says Gomez: “The stress of heat really exacerbates psychosis, and therefore it becomes much more difficult to get people to engage in any service.”

Caitlin O’Hara for NPR

Sidewalks can heat up to more than 150 degrees in the Phoenix sun. Every summer, Foster treats patients who fall, can’t get up and develop severe burns.

The Arizona Burn Center has treated a high volume of patients this year. And Foster said patient demographics are changing. In the past, patients were typically elderly who struggle with balance. Recently, Foster’s patients have been younger. She said they are now homeless more often and that many of their falls are related to substance abuse.

“They go down and stay for a long time. They end up not only getting bad burns, but they suffer from heat prostration and heat stroke. Often, their temperatures go up to 108 or 109 degrees Fahrenheit.”

County records show similar demographic changes. Heat deaths are increasingly occurring outdoors among the homeless. About 60% of cases involve substance use.


Dennis “Rooster” Williams, 69, and Shadow the German Shepherd sit outside St. Vincent de Paul in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix.

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Dennis “Rooster” Williams, 69, and Shadow the German Shepherd sit outside St. Vincent de Paul in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix.

Caitlin O’Hara for NPR

“Any of these deaths can be prevented,” said David Hondula, director of the newly launched Office of Heat Response and Mitigation in Phoenix. “My interpretation is the increase [in heat fatalities] it is much more linked to what is happening with social services than to the climate “.

Hondula fears that the region’s already warm temperatures are rising. Phoenix National Weather Service projects will average over 120 days per year with triple-digit heat by the end of this decade.

But Hondula is more troubled by another trend. The homeless homeless population of Maricopa County, where Phoenix is ​​located, has tripled since 2016.

A construction shortage dating back to the Great Recession of 2008, coupled with explosive population growth, has caused house prices to skyrocket. This is contributing to a growing homeless Arizona population. Hondula said it is turning heat into a more critical public health threat.

“Our unprotected neighbors are at absolutely higher risk of heat-associated death,” Hondula said. “Our best estimate is that the unprotected community is 200 to 300 times higher at risk than the rest of the population.”


Dr. Mark Bueno, medical director of the street medicine program at Circle the City.

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Dr. Mark Bueno, medical director of the street medicine program at Circle the City.

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It’s not just the long hours spent outdoors. Hondula said people without shelter also have limited access to medical care, a higher likelihood of chronic health problems, and high addiction rates, all of which can increase risk.

Dehydration and exhaustion can also be disastrous for mental health, said psychiatric nurse Nina Gomez, at the mobile medical clinic run by the nonprofit Circle the City.

“The stress of heat really exacerbates psychosis, and therefore it becomes much more difficult to get people to engage in any service,” Gomez said.

The city of Phoenix is ​​making major investments to address the housing crisis, announcing in June that it was allocating $ 70.5 million for affordable housing and homelessness programs. But these problems cannot be solved overnight. So, for now, organizations like Circle the City seek to provide short-term solutions.


Nina Gomez, a Circle the City psychiatric nurse, stays with the mobile medical unit of the nonprofit organization.

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Nina Gomez, a Circle the City psychiatric nurse, stays with the mobile medical unit of the nonprofit organization.

Caitlin O’Hara for NPR

“We’re trying to intervene early, so hydrate people, get them food, see if they need anything before a complete crisis comes,” Gomez said.

And as summer drags on, Yager and other unprotected people at the clinic say they will drink water, keep a hat and just try to stay cool.

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