Texas Homeless Network

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The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on People Experiencing Homelessness

The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on People Experiencing Homelessness

By: Katie Good

Across Texas, the unusually warm weather in early spring is a delight for many. However, it also raises concerns about the impending summer and the increasing impact of climate change, marked by the record-breaking heat experienced throughout the U.S. in the summer of 2023. It’s widely acknowledged that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the main drivers of the rising frequency and severity of extreme weather events and the long-term warming of our planet.

For those of us working to end homelessness, the focus sharpens on how extreme temperatures affect those without stable housing. The question of how to assist those without access to a cool, safe space during heat waves is pressing. While there are a devastatingly large number of ways in which the extreme weather caused by climate change disproportionately affects people experiencing homelessness, this blog will concentrate on the impacts of extreme heat on people experiencing homelessness and what steps can be taken to help our planet and our unhoused neighbors. 

Health Risks from Extreme Heat

The danger presented by extreme heat to human health cannot be overstated. Heat-related illnesses arise when the body loses the ability to control its internal temperature and cannot cool down. Extreme heat events can trigger a variety of heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke, which can be fatal. Unhoused individuals who are exposed to the elements for long periods without relief are at an increased risk of experiencing heat-related illness and death. Extreme heat can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions that are statistically more prevalent among people experiencing homelessness, including respiratory issues, cardiovascular disease, and pulmonary disease. In addition to worsening pre-existing health conditions, unhoused people are at increased risk of third-degree burns from the sun and hot surfaces, severe dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. The urban heat island effect, which causes temperatures to soar well above those in surrounding areas, further elevates risks for those living in densely built environments without shelter. 

Last year, Texans experienced the hottest summer since 2011, with an average temperature of 85.3 degrees between June and the end of August. Some cities in Texas experienced more than 40 days of 100-degree or higher weather. Most disturbingly, this extreme heat led to the highest number of heat-related deaths in Texas history at 334, which is twice as many heat-related deaths that occurred in 2011. Around the country, heat contributes to some 1,500 deaths annually, and advocates estimate about half of those people are homeless. In general, people experiencing homelessness are 200 times more likely to die from heat-related causes than sheltered individuals.

In addition to being life-threatening, extreme heat exacerbates the already substantial stressors experienced by those living unsheltered. People who are unsheltered during heat waves may find it more difficult to sleep, with high temperatures sustaining throughout the night. High temperatures make it difficult to preserve food, leading to spoilage and potential illness in those who do not have refrigeration. Without access to the resources that would allow a person to cool down in the face of extreme heat, such as running water and air conditioning, people experiencing homelessness may take increased risks to cool down by swimming in dangerous and/or polluted waters, trespassing to access cool areas, drinking alcohol more heavily than normal, or using substances to find relief. 

Extreme Heat & Mental Health 

Extreme heat is a source of irritation and stress for anyone living through a summer in Texas, but for people with mental health conditions, the impact of extreme heat can be more severe. Multiple studies report that heat waves are associated with increased rates of hospitalization for mental disorders. During periods of extreme heat, the likelihood of hospitalizations for mood disorders like depression and mania increases by 40 percent. Studies on the relationship between extreme heat and mental health also found notable correlations between high temperatures and increased suicide rates. Additionally, people on certain mental health-related medications, such as anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, may be at increased risk due to increased dehydration risk and decreased ability to sense when the body is overheating. 

All of these effects are compounded for people who are homeless and living with mental health conditions. During the 2023 Point in Time count, 31 percent of the homeless population reported having a serious mental illness, and 24 percent had conditions related to chronic substance abuse. In addition to the risk factors we identified for people with mental health and substance use conditions, those without stable housing face additional risk factors associated with a lack of shelter. For example, the lack of sleep unhoused people may experience during extreme heat can be a contributing stressor for mental health and substance use conditions. Also, during extreme heat events, substance use can increase mortality among people experiencing homelessness by affecting decisions to seek shelter and accelerating dehydration. 

How to Help

The extreme heat events that we have seen in the past decade are projected to increase in severity and frequency as our impact on the planet continues to change its climate. People experiencing unsheltered homelessness will continue to suffer the greatest consequences of extreme weather events. 

The most effective solution to reducing the impact of extreme heat on people experiencing homelessness is to create more affordable and stable housing options for people to live in so that people are not made to be outside in life-threatening conditions. One of the most important things you can do is advocate for policies and policy leaders that prioritize stable housing as a primary solution to homelessness and as an act of climate justice. You can do this by participating in or donating to groups and organizations dedicated to pushing for Housing First initiatives. 

Support local shelters and organizations by donating or volunteering. Financial contributions help shelters and organizations provide air-conditioned spaces, hydration stations, and heat-relief supplies. By volunteering, especially during heat waves, you can help facilitate heatwave response efforts, distribute water and supplies, or provide health check-ins for vulnerable individuals.

You can also integrate direct support into your day-to-day by preparing cooling supplies to hand out to your unhoused neighbors on hot days. Distribute water bottles, hats, sunscreen, and portable fans to those in need. If you have the capacity, consider setting up temporary shade structures or cooling stations for people to cool down in. Linked below are resources that provide more in-depth guidance on how to help people stay cool during an extreme heat event. 

Lastly, be sure to do your part to protect the planet by voting and advocating for policies and policy leaders who are prioritizing environmental protection and climate change initiatives. Organize or join groups within your community dedicated to protecting green spaces, host community cleanup events, and create space for conversations about local policies that impact the environment. Reflect on your daily habits and assess what changes you can make to minimize your carbon footprint. 

Remember, while immediate actions can provide temporary relief, advocating for systemic changes and supporting sustainable solutions are crucial to addressing the root causes of homelessness and mitigating the impact of climate change. Your involvement can make a significant difference in the lives of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat.


Resources for How to Help:

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The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on People Experiencing Homelessness
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