Extreme heat and homelessness. What’s California’s plan?

As the temperature soared past 110C one afternoon last week, the air inside L’aMaira Tyson’s sagging nylon tent felt like an explosion from an open oven.

“It’s hot out here,” she said with stoic understatement, leaning next to two pitchers of bottled water near a freeway overpass and a busy street in Sacramento. “I get through with God.”

We appreciate their faith, but this camp felt more like hell than heaven during the worst “heat dome” that sent temperatures skyrocketing across California, including a record high of 116 in the capital.

“You can’t breathe,” Tyson said. “It’s killing you.”

Heat has always made it harder not to be accommodated. But to use this favorite word of our time, this is unprecedented. As the temperature soars to new extremes and stays elevated for days, tens of thousands of homeless people are at greater risk of heat stroke, cardiac arrest and dehydration.

Unlike cities on the East Coast and Midwest, which rely on a robust network of shelters to protect the homeless from the dangers of extreme cold, Western cities have allowed people to linger outdoors in our generally good weather.

But what happens when climate change makes the good weather bad?

Will extreme heat push California to enact a legal right to shelter or shelter to help those who might now be baking in the summer and shivering in the freezing rain and dodging floods as winter storms intensify?

And with lives increasingly at stake, does a “right” to be inside mean an obligation to be inside?

Los Angeles already has more hypothermia deaths than many cities in colder regions because more people live homeless outdoors than anywhere else in the country.

“These days are extreme examples of what’s wrong and what’s broken in the first place,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a longtime advocate for a statutory right to shelter and health care. “If extreme weather can help drive the necessary change, then let’s take advantage of the crisis.”

In the United States, extreme heat kills more people each year than hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. It just doesn’t deserve the same attention because these deaths are scattered, occurring individually in bedrooms, tents and workplaces, and uncounted by coroners and public health officials.

Last year, a Times investigation found that in California alone, extreme heat killed about 3,900 people between 2010 and 2019 — about six times the state reported — and some hospitals have seen a spike in heat-related cases over the past 15 years.

Researchers found this year that unprotected people — particularly those with a mental illness — in extreme heat were significantly more likely to end up in hospital than sheltered people, based on a study of emergency departments.

L'aMaira Tyson in her tent during a recent heat wave in Sacramento.

L’aMaira Tyson stayed in her nylon tent on September 7, during the worst heatwave in recent memory when temperatures in Sacramento hit 116.

(Anita Chabria / Los Angeles Times)

Black people tend to be hardest hit. Like Tyson, who hid in her broken tent for most of the past week, too tired and hot to even look for more water, while cars were swept by spewing exhaust fumes. She blamed her misery on the relentless direct sun and the pavement, which mercilessly radiated the stored heat.

The catastrophic and far-reaching effects of climate change are becoming more evident across the country by the week. President Biden’s infrastructure package includes $50 billion to protect against drought, extreme heat and flooding, but that’s a meager investment in resilience given the many threats.

Meanwhile, California still isn’t officially tracking heat-related deaths, even among the unprotected, although there are signs that may change. Apart from some early planning and a few ambitious mission statements, little coherent impetus for action remains. This is despite a $37.6 billion climate change package and $800 million budget for 2021 aimed at reducing urgent risks from extreme heat.

Like so much about homelessness, California’s plan relies on voluntary action by local governments — where too often the dangers of climate change are treated as a temporary inconvenience rather than the new normal.

Many cities and counties open refrigeration centers when temperatures hit certain marks, as they should. Los Angeles did last week, as did Sacramento. But these centers tend to have limited hours and disappear once the heat is no longer extreme but still dangerous for the most vulnerable on our streets.

And even this breather is only available where public pressure requires political action.

Then there are places like Lancaster in northern Los Angeles County, where about 200 people eke out an existence without shelter on a smoldering stretch of the Mojave Desert just outside the city.

Eve Garrow, a political analyst with the ACLU in Southern California, has championed her. Many, as reported by the Guardian, say they were forced there by intrusive sheriff’s deputies and are now hiding in tents, cars and RVs miles from the resources they need to survive.

“The weather is very inclement,” said Garrow, “and it’s getting hotter.”

At the weekend it was three-digit numbers. Garrow said she met several homeless people who were nervous about doing something that would involve physical exertion.

She met a man named Jeff who recounted how he almost died. He miscalculated and didn’t drink enough water before going into town, so he collapsed. He only survived because a relative found him and took him to the hospital.

A woman named Linda explained that she usually roller skates everywhere because she doesn’t have a vehicle and the sidewalk once melted the soles of her shoes. She lives with a friend who has a trailer but no air conditioning. So they hooked up a car battery to a radiator fan, Garrow said.

With stories like this, California needs to do more to drive lasting change than just making plans and mission statements. It’s also entirely possible. Steinberg points to events during the COVID-19 pandemic as evidence.

Within months, thousands of people were moved from street camps to makeshift shelters and later to hotel and motel rooms under Project Roomkey and Project Homekey. It was an effort made possible by state and local public health orders, coupled with California bank accounts.

In releasing the latest estimates for Los Angeles County’s homeless population, officials argued that measures enacted during the pandemic — from more shelters to rent assistance to moratoriums on evictions — have resulted in slower growth. Between 2020 and 2022, the number of homeless increased by 4.1% to 69,144, compared to a 25% increase in previous years.

Neither Project Roomkey nor Project Homekey were perfect, and many activists are right to criticize the way officials are passing off makeshift shelters as “homes.” But each showed what is possible when the government has a legal obligation to find immediate solutions to homelessness.

“There’s a precedent and there’s a lesson” to be learned from what elected officials have been able to accomplish during the pandemic, Steinberg said: If the law compels the government to act, the government will act much more urgently and effectively.

But giving extreme heat the same legal weight as COVID-19 won’t be easy. Some, including Steinberg, would like the California legislature to pass legislation declaring a legal right to shelter, shelter and care — at least for vulnerable people.

New York City has a right to protection, as mandated by courts since 1981, when attorneys sued on behalf of a man turned away from a shelter for lack of space. But even officials there don’t go as far as Steinberg.

A vehicle passes a digital sign that reads 116 degrees

A vehicle drives past a bank sign showing the temperature on September 6 in Sacramento.

(Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

The mayor, who is also a former Senate leader, envisions some kind of obligation for homeless people to accept housing if it’s offered. Other elected leaders across California are fed up with camps and have voiced at least vague support for them.

But such a requirement is a flop for many activists and civil rights activists, who argue that personal autonomy is the fundamental right that must not be compromised — life-threatening heatwaves or not.

Meanwhile, California is sure to experience even more extreme weather patterns in the years to come, from catastrophic wildfires to tropical storms to massive floods. California just experienced the longest, hottest September days on its history, and this is just the beginning.

Tyson says the Sacramento heat is worse than the cold and snow of her native Buffalo, NY, where she was also homeless. At least in the cold, she says, she had some motivation to move. She couldn’t “do anything” in the heat.

Except waiting and hoping California does something.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-13/extreme-heat-climate-change-california-homeless-shelter-housing-policy Extreme heat and homelessness. What’s California’s plan?

Alley Einstein

USTimesPost.com is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – admin@ustimespost.com. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button