A photo of city workers and homeless residents at an encampment cleanup in D.C.
City employees and homeless residents on July 2 during a scheduled cleanup at the K Street NE underpass between 1st and 2nd streets. Photo by Will Schick

Washington D.C. is one of the most intense summer “heat islands” of any U.S. city. Temperatures during the summer can soar 21 degrees higher than surrounding rural areas, according to a report by Climate Central. And the population at greatest risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses in the summer is people experiencing homelessness.

Sheila White, a Street Sense Media artist and student at the University of the District of Columbia, thinks that people often overlook the dangers summer weather poses to homeless residents.

“Everybody wants to think about wintertime, about how you can freeze, and about frostbite,” White said. “But they don’t think about the summer,” she said.

Being exposed to the heat for many homeless residents means not having a place to take cover or to take medication, White said. For instance, those with diabetes can’t carry their insulin because the bottles are in danger of “exploding,” White explained. And sometimes, due to the heat, her own medication “melts and sticks to the bottle,” she said.

People who are homeless are more than twice as likely to suffer from diabetes. They are also more likely to suffer from hypertension, heart disease, HIV, hepatitis C, depression and a laundry list of other ailments.

Summer heat can kill

Hundreds of people die every year in the U.S. from heat-related illnesses. The National Weather Service runs a public health campaign during the summer months telling people to stay indoors, keep hydrated, and avoid or limit participating in strenuous activities outside.

But for residents who have no place to call home, this can be an almost impossible task. The city does not always make it easy for those who are unsheltered.

Every week, the District leads encampment clean-ups in various public spaces across the city. These clean-ups are organized by representatives from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS), workers from the Department of Public Works, the Department of Behavioral Health, and officers from the Metropolitan Police Department. District protocol states that these engagements are to help homeless residents “better stabilize their living condition by conducting outreach and offering certain support services including temporary shelter and permanent housing placements when they are available.”

In practice, however, clean-ups can become more like exercises in moving things around. Since unsheltered residents are required to vacate the public spaces they have been illegally occupying, they often end up, against the advice of the National Weather Service, partaking in strenuous outdoor activities. For individuals with many belongings, this process can be laborious, particularly when temperatures climb above 90 degrees.

At encampment clean-ups around the city this summer, unsheltered residents can be observed packing and moving their belongings from one street corner to another.

One encampment resident in NoMa, who goes by the name Mama Joy, said she believes encampment clean-ups are necessary. But, as she said, “it’s never a clean-up. It’s just a move around.” NoMa encampment clean-ups occur every two weeks.

Marchell Thomas, another unsheltered resident who lives in NoMa, said that she believed moving every two weeks can be difficult. “I think they need to keep in mind that some people have health issues,” Thomas said.

Unsheltered residents are often asked to collect all their belongings and move someplace else. Anything left behind is thrown out.

The rate at which the District is forcing unsheltered residents to move their things is increasing. In the summer of 2015, the city conducted a total of seven encampment engagements. In comparison, five engagements alone were conducted this month.

Doug Buchanan, the communications officer for the Department of Fire and Emergency Services said there were “most definitely increased requests for emergency medical services during the summer.” According to data he provided, there have been close to 200 cases of heat exhaustion reported in the city since May.

It remains unclear, however, how many of these cases involve people who are without homes, because. D.C. doesn’t track demographics, according to Buchanan. Instead, the city tracks emergency incidents by address. The number of heat cases has been increasing across all eight of the District’s wards, according to the Fire and EMS data.

The city activates heat alerts whenever temperatures climb to 95 degrees or above. As a result, DMHHS cancelled three encampment clean-ups scheduled for July 18, due to a city-wide warning indicating that the heat index may reach 110 to 115 degrees in the afternoon.

Recreation centers, public pools, and libraries are among some locations that serve as cooling centers. However, according to the District’s 2019 Heat Emergency Plan, “ some facilities, including DC Public Libraries (DCPL), may have bag limits,” which may impact some unsheltered residents.

White said she saw a woman pass out several years ago from carrying all of her belongings around in the heat. She had been trying to reach a cooling center.

How to help relieve the heat

Since the weather is just one of many obstacles homeless residents face, heat exhaustion is often the last thing on their mind.

Thrive D.C. is a non-profit located in Columbia Heights that has served the local homeless community since 1979.

During the summer, Mariah Cowser, the communications coordinator for Thrive D.C., said that she tries to carry extra sunblock or bottles of water, and recommended others do the same.

“I usually do a check on the people in my neighborhood,” she said.

But the best thing that people can really do to help, according to Alicia Horton, the executive director for Thrive D.C., is to “connect people with services.”

As she explained, the experience of homelessness can often mirror the experience of having a full-time job. If you are homeless, she said, you might be “out there all day long trying to figure out where you are going to eat, where you are going to shower, where you are going to sleep, where you’re going to do laundry, where you’re going to find work…” The list goes on and on.

Thrive D.C. tries to mitigate these concerns by providing their clients with shower facilities, laundry facilities, prescription assistance, eyeglass assistance, a food pantry, a workforce development program, a workforce readiness program, a substance abuse and recovery program, and with hot meals.

“The thing with heat issues is… you don’t know it until it’s too late,” Horton said.

Street Sense Media artist Vince Watts agreed the best way to help people experiencing homelessness is to connect them with services. Like many homeless residents in the District, Watts chooses not to deal with the rules imposed by low-barrier shelters across the city and chooses to sleep outside. While this situation hasn’t proved to be overly strenuous for him as temperatures have increased, he said it can be especially difficult for anyone navigating homelessness for the first time.

Getting by in the summer can be manageable for someone that knows how to get around the city and utilize its resources, according to Watts. However, “some homeless people don’t have cell phones. Some people just don’t know where some resources are,” he said. “It helps when you share knowledge about the different resources that are out there.”

During a recent encampment clean-up near Foggy Bottom, an unsheltered resident named Leon echoed Watts’s concern.

“Some people just do not know about where they can go for help,” he said, when asked what he thought was the best way to help the homeless in the summertime.

Thanks to Miriam’s Kitchen, Leon and other unsheltered residents living in an encampment near Foggy Bottom have access to breakfast and dinner, as well as a host of other services. Like Thrive D.C., Miriam’s Kitchen seeks to help homeless residents by connecting them to a range of services, beyond access to meals. While programs like these can be life saving for many, they are not open every day.

Thrive D.C. and Miriam’s Kitchen are not open for meal service on the weekends. St Stephen’s, the church where Thrive DC is located however, serves lunch on weekends through a program called Loaves and Fishes.

According to many unsheltered residents, weekends can be especially difficult.  Places that are open during the week, such as public libraries, are often closed or have reduced hours. Free meals are also harder to find.

During the summer, residents can use the city’s interactive map of cooling centers across the city to help with spreading information on where people can go to escape the heat. Street Sense Media’s website also has a section where readers can search for service providers. This list is not all-encompassing, but it can be a helpful start for those interested in learning about where homeless residents can find the help they need.

Correction (07.28.2019)

This article has been updated to include information on the Loaves and Fishes meal service offered by St Stephen’s Church in Columbia Heights. A previous version of the article stated that Thrive DC was not open for meal service on weekends. While Thrive DC does not serve meals on weekends, the church where they are located, does provide this service.