Home News High Heat Raises Risks for Homeless Floridians

High Heat Raises Risks for Homeless Floridians

High Heat Raises Risks for Homeless Floridians

Each morning, Rickquita Monroe, 34, and Curby Monroe, 32, wake up beneath an overpass in downtown Orlando, Fla. Several other people are usually spread out beside them on the sidewalks lining either side of the five-lane road. Throughout the night, they count on gusts of wind from passing traffic for relief from the thick, increasingly blistering Florida heat. It is especially dangerous to Ms. Monroe, who has a seizure disorder that is exacerbated by high temperatures.

“I feel like I’m in hell,” Ms. Monroe said. “It’s that hot.”

The Monroes are among hundreds of thousands of Americans who are homeless and unsheltered during what signs indicate will be one of the hottest summers on record.

Florida has the third largest homeless population in the nation after California and New York, according to national tallies from 2022.

Rent in major Florida cities has soared in recent years. Average rent has jumped 44.7 percent in Orlando since before the pandemic, according to data from Zillow.

Advocates for the homeless in the city are racing to meet the needs of a growing unsheltered population. This summer, a network of homeless service providers issued for the first time a heat advisory for those living outside.

Eric Gray is the executive director of the Christian Service Center for Central Florida, an organization that runs a day campus for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Orlando. The center has started opening a dedicated indoor space for people to cool down when the heat index reaches 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This isn’t a question of, Hey, we really like to make it nice and comfortable for people,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s like throwing a life preserver to somebody drowning.”

From January to June, Florida registered its hottest temperatures ever for the time period. With above-average temperatures continuing into July, that trend will likely continue. And those records don’t consider the high humidity, which makes conditions more dangerous by limiting the body’s ability to cool itself.

The heat index, a measurement of how hot it actually feels with the humidity, has reached 100 degrees or more in Orlando on at least 34 days this summer. And that measurement is calculated in the shade. Direct sunlight can feel up to 15 degrees hotter, according to the National Weather Service.

Ursula Brinson has been sleeping on the sidewalk outside the Christian Service Center for more than a year. The 71-year-old, who says she has had multiple strokes, uses a wheelchair to get around. During the day, she comes to the center for ice and shade but struggles to find anywhere to go when the center closes.

“There’s nowhere to cool off,” she said. “People don’t let you go in their stores. They holler at you like, ‘You homeless. Get out. Get out. Get out. We don’t want you in here.’”

Heat indexes over 103 are dangerous to human health and can be deadly, according to the Weather Service. The prolonged exposure to heat endured by people living outdoors puts them at increased risk, especially those who are older or have existing health conditions.

Statistics on heat deaths often lag far behind heat events, and getting an accurate count can be difficult. In Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and the surrounding area, 425 people died of heat-related causes in 2022. Nearly half of those deaths were people experiencing homelessness.

Pia Valvassori, a nurse practitioner for the Healthcare Center for the Homeless in Orlando, said she had seen an increase in patients coming in with health conditions related to excessive heat exposure. These include a broad range of symptoms, such as headaches, lethargy, heart palpitations and insomnia.

“Having a place to cool down is really, really essential in these extreme circumstances,” Ms. Valvassori said. “That’s why it’s so critical that we develop some type of a response this year and for years to come.”

Shane O’Neill and Judson Jones contributed reporting.


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