With the temperature forecast to hit 111 degrees, Julian is savoring the morning shade on a legless pleather office chair in Tucson’s Armory Park.
Ringed around him are a few big plastic bags, a battered suitcase, a duffel bag, a pile of unfolded clothes, a small kiddie pool turned upside down, and duct-tape mended tent-poles.
It was June 16, just past 9 in the morning, and already in the 90s. About 100 miles northwest, the desert heat in Phoenix would climb to 113 degrees.
“I’ve had heat stroke before,” Julian says. “I don’t ever want to deal with that again.”
His plan for staying cool, however, didn’t get further than: “I’ll get through it.”
• Share a flier in English or Spanish about cooling center locations in Tucson
• Learn more about the Splinter Collective and their efforts in Tucson
• Donate reusable water bottles or electrolyte drinks at the Sister José women’s shelter in Tucson
Julian (he asked to be identified only by his first name) is wearing black flip-flops, black cutoff jeans, a black zip-tie around his neck, and a black button down dress shirt opened at the chest. Crumpling a half-empty plastic water bottle in his hands, Julian explains that he has been unsheltered for about four years.
Sometimes, he says, he stays in community shelters, but otherwise he finds a spot to pitch his slouching tent. A car’s windshield sun protector helps keep the heat out when he can’t find enough shade.
Julian was one of eight people spread out around Armory Park that day. One woman was draped straight on the sidewalk, which was fast losing shade in the rising sun.
The same mid-June week 100 million people across the U.S. faced heat advisories, an increasingly dire problem as climate change turns up the temperature at the same time a host of other societal failures leave millions of people unhoused and forced to deal with the elements without a reliable roof over their heads.
In 2021, more than 550 people died across the state from heat-related causes (where exposure to excessive natural heat is listed on the medical examiner’s records). That makes Arizona the deadliest state in the nation for heat emergencies.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2004 until 2018 an average of 702 people died every year from heat across the U.S., and nearly 70,000 people went to the emergency room.
Last year, an unprecedented heat wave in the northwestern U.S. and southwestern Canada saw temperatures higher than 120 degrees, damaging infrastructure, melting roads, and killing more than 1,000 people in both the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, the number of unsheltered people aged 65 and older is, from 2017 numbers, expected to triple by 2030, according to a recent study.
While people who live in the desert are more habituated to extreme heat, the housing, mental health, and drug addiction crises have pushed many Arizonans into the street, leaving them especially vulnerable to heat waves.
To save lives during Arizona’s blistering summers, a number of cities have opened “cooling centers,” where anybody can go during the scorch of the day (and sometimes also in the simmer of the night), get water, and try to keep their body temperature down. And yet, as Ernesto Portillo, Tucson’s Housing and Community Development’s public information officer, told Arizona Luminaria, “Cooling centers are little, tiny little band aids.”
Tucson has five official cooling centers and recently removed the previous temperature threshold of 110 degrees. They will now be open noon to 4 p.m. daily from June-August, regardless of the temperature. Maricopa County also has dozens of cooling centers, which operate with different schedules, but with enough of them to be generally accessible. Phoenix also maintains a website with tips and resources for staying cool.
Mitigating the effects of climate change and getting people in homes — tasks at once both daunting and urgent — is the real solution.
As society works to avoid the worst effects of climate change and build toward long-term global stability, there are a number of stop-gap measures to take.
They include: local governments prioritizing heat and disaster safety such as working with private companies to open businesses for people to cool down or take shelter; piecemeal infrastructural changes, such as shaded pedestrian paths, cool roofs, prioritizing public transportation and bikes over automobile-centric streets; as well as providing employment, social and mental health services, and addiction treatment to help people better help and protect themselves.
Most pressing, as in pressing tonight, is getting people into homes.
As Patricia Solis, Executive Director of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at Arizona State University, recently told The Guardian, “Exposure to extreme heat is a housing issue, and we’re the canary in the coal mine.”
A new report from the CDC focusing on heat death and illness in Maricopa and Yuma counties, notes that while cooling centers provide relief, simple access barriers, including lack of transportation, not being able to bring pets, and limited hours prevent them from becoming anything resembling a panacea.
Until those larger problems — climate change, housing, and mental health crises — are addressed, extending the availability of cooling centers and offering broadened services is a matter of life or death.
Heat is a silent killer
In Arizona, June, July and August are cruel months.
Tucson and Phoenix are the third and fourth-fastest warming cities in the country, respectively. As a whole, Arizona is the third fastest warming state.
As the temperature rises, more people are dying every year due to heat-related illnesses. Though categorization across jurisdictions is inconsistent, a decade ago, there were only about 90 such deaths a year. In 2000, there were only 32. Last year, Maricopa County alone had 339 heat-related deaths, double the number of heat-related deaths that took place there in 2016.
Pima County counts far fewer, but still at least dozens of deaths in the last two years. And every year hundreds of migrants, almost all of whom have no other means of crossing the border but setting off across the desert terrain of Southern Arizona, die of heat. (None of the official tallies count the heat-related deaths of border crossers.)
Senior citizens, people with disabilities, people suffering from addiction, and the unsheltered are all particularly vulnerable. According to the latest statistics, Pima County has more than 2,200 unsheltered people, and Phoenix alone recently counted 5,000 people.
As Elena Grossman, an expert on climate change and public health at the University of Illinois, put it: “Heat is a silent killer.”
We may not know the full extent of heat-related illness and death. Both deaths from cardiovascular disease and renal failure increase during heat waves, though the deaths aren’t always tabulated as heat-related. Death from heat is not currently classified as something that must be reported to the CDC.
Grossman, who has also studied the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave, the deadliest heat wave in the nation’s history, when more than 700 people died, explained that the neighborhoods with the highest heat-related deaths were the lowest income neighborhoods and had the highest asthma hospitalization rates.
“The majority of people who died were Black and low-income,” Grossman said. That wasn’t an anomaly: neglected and marginalized communities still suffer more from heat waves.
Portillo pointed to the housing crisis for working class families as one of the exacerbating issues. With both rising housing prices and the pandemic, Portillo said, “You see an almost immediate explosion of unsheltered people in the city. The camps grew almost exponentially.” And those are the people who now face the worst effects of the rising heat.
Estevan Park camp
Just a couple yards from the train tracks north of downtown Tucson, Jasmine, 31, is slumped into a half-broken camp-chair. She’s shielded from the sun by a spot of mesquite shade, but is thirsty, and the temperature is climbing.
Just a few days earlier, Jasmine suffered a heat stroke, or what she thought was one — she was never officially diagnosed. When she was passed out, she says she was robbed of her phone and ID. Days later, she still isn’t feeling well, her speech slurring as she explains that she’s waiting for ice. (She declined help to seek medical attention.)
About fifteen minutes later a bag of ice shows up. Lethargically — almost in a whisper, and directed to no one — she asks for a cup. After a few minutes of searching, someone finally provides, and Jasmine starts sucking on a cube.
People staying in the Estevan Park camp, around the corner from where Jasmine is hunkered, often pull together to buy ice when it gets too hot.
The camp near Estevan Park is a ramshackle collection of tents, tarps and dwellings abutting the park fence, where about 15 people are semi-permanently clustered. Just a few blocks away, two resource centers attend to basic needs: a Salvation Army center and Caridad Community Kitchen, both of which offer water, some food and electrolyte popsicles. Salvation Army also lets people inside to cool down during the day.
They have to give up their cell phones, but they can grab a bite, hydrate and nap or watch TV. Even closer than the Salvation Army or Caridad is a community center, the Splinter Collective, which has set up a “free store,” an outdoor shower, fresh water, and a charging station for cell phones.
Jasmine’s predicament, however, isn’t solved by a few hours of reprieve.
Crunching on ice, she says, “I just want to go home.”
She’s been on the streets for two years. She’s not alone. But her companionship, however welcome, is principally other unsheltered community members who are both transient and dealing with difficulties of their own.
Dan, 44, has been living in the camp for the past two years, though he now has an apartment lined up and hopes to move in a couple of weeks. He says the best way to beat the heat is simple: “Keep in the shade.”
“I try to keep everybody hydrated,” he says, adding that there are a lot of people over 50 sleeping at Estevan.
Tucson Police Department had recently posted, and then quickly removed, a notice to evict everyone, residents said.
With Dan on his way out, and with consistent tensions with the police, stopgap community response only extends so far.
Bernice Jenko, a 21-year-old housing activist and member of Splinter, wants the city to start focusing more on mental health. Mental disorders and drug use are the most common comorbidities to heat-related illnesses in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“Estevan Park is an example of what other camps should be looking towards,” Jenko said. “We’re advocating for our neighbors in such simple and important ways. This is the minimum that we should do.”
Though Estevan neighbors rely on desperately needed goodwill, it only goes so far with systemic, deeply entrenched, and complicated issues. Those issues will only become more urgent in coming decades.
Santiago Acosta is a security guard who lets folks into the Armory Park Center where they can use bathrooms and fill up with water (but only until 3:30 in the afternoon). He recently had to call the fire department when an elderly woman fell asleep in the shade, the shade moved, and, after a while in the sun, she started seizing. Heat hurts the community, he says.
Author David Wallace-Wells summarizes in his book, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” the impending and wide-ranging public-health disaster if we don’t take quick and concerted action on climate change. Wallace-Wells cites one speculative paper that estimates that by 2099 climate change will bring about an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 rapes, 3.5 million assaults, and 3.76 million robberies.
“Heat frays everything,” he writes.
Respite in cooling centers
One concrete step to slow the fraying is Tucson and Pima County’s cooling center expansion, not only extending hours and dropping the temperature threshold (official cooling centers in Tucson used to only open at 110 degrees and up), but turning them into places that offer wraparound care, including basic medical and social services.
The goal, said Joseph Tabor, is to turn cooling centers into “community resilience centers, building community resilience to extreme heat, other climate and health risks, and other public health threats through a strong network of collaborating public sector, private sector, and community organizations.” Tabor is an epidemiologist and environmental health specialist with Pima County.
“As the climate continues to get hotter and hotter,” Tucson Mayor Regina Romero told Arizona Luminaria, echoing Tabor, “we are hoping that the cooling centers can be a respite for our community, so our community can see them not just as cooling centers, but a resource centers.”
“In order to be able to survive the climate getting hotter, we need to make sure that we have strategies on the books and an action plan to make people’s homes more adapted to hotter weather,” Romero said.
The city’s plan includes pushing for cool roofs, planting trees, more water harvesting, and requiring electric vehicle charging stations.
Despite the mayor’s plans, not everyone is convinced the city is doing enough. Just north of downtown stands Z Mansion, a private home, wedding venue, and community shelter. Reverend Tom Hill, who owns and manages the space, explained that Z Mansion is a low-barrier shelter, meaning nobody needs ID or even to share a last name to get in. They’re also not turned away if they’ve been drinking.
The one rule: no shouting. The space is whisper quiet, and cooled by giant fans and the shade of a couple large mesquite trees.
Hill had recently made a video, which he shared with Arizona Luminaria, elucidating the city’s downtown policies, where officials have cordoned off a few patches of grass near the library, allowing them to give unsheltered people the boot for posting up on the grass.
In the video, Hill is holding an infrared thermometer, showing that the temperature of the sidewalk was hitting 130 degrees whereas the grass was only registering in the 80s. (The day he was taking those readings was only about 100.) The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about limiting access to grassy areas.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, the city has created an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, which distributes water bottles, hats, and sunblock. Phoenix also added more shelter capacity, opened a 24/7 cooling center, and dumped additional funds into “outreach teams focused on engaging people who are unsheltered and encouraging people to come to safe, indoor spaces.”
Looking toward root causes, the city also added $70.5 million to the budget for affordable housing and homelessness projects.
At the state level, Representative Andrés Cano introduced legislation in February aiming to mandate that all employers provide their workers with a cool and shaded area if the temperature is expected to exceed 100 degrees.
“The bill is dead thanks to GOP inaction,” Cano said, responding to Arizona Luminaria’s questions about the state of the proposed legislation.
Gov. Doug Ducey’s office did not respond to requests for comment about how his administration is addressing dangerous heat.
‘We’re just trying to live’
Back at the camp outside Estevan Park, Frank, 57, is listening to Kendrick Lamar and coiling copper wire around a thread spool. He’s sitting on a dirty cooler outside his tent, where he has been living for the past seven months.
A dismantled bike, an upside down bucket as a workbench, some cans to trade in for a few nickels, and an old blanket as a welcome mat constitute what he calls his porch. Frank wanted to be on hand to help out his brother, also unsheltered and currently dozing in the adjacent tent, as he faces an upcoming knee surgery.
Frank says he was fired recently from a job cleaning kitchens. He’s back to harvesting copper from tossed electronics. Frank’s plan for the day: “Just trying to hold on.”
Frank talks about the camp’s recent eviction threat.
“We’re just trying to live, but cops don’t like homeless people. Fine, just give us a place to go then,” he says.
Tucson Police Department has a homeless outreach team aimed at providing resources. But experts say such support should be separate from policing, as it can cause fear for people who feel criminalized because they don’t have shelter.
When asked if he would go to the cooling center that day, Frank shrugged, “Probably not.”
A basic stumbling block is awareness: Not everyone knows about the cooling centers.
The day before it hit 110, it was already hot enough that Frankie, another unsheltered man finding a bit of reprieve in a Tucson park — Catalina Park in the West University neighborhood — is lugging a large backpack and hugging shade.
He didn’t know about the extreme-weather warning for the next couple days. He says, simply, it will be, “hot.”
He’d never heard of the cooling center, and didn’t have a working phone to be able to look it up. People who live in rural areas may also be unable to access cooling centers.
Whether cities can draw people to them or not, cooling centers may also be considered an example of “maladaptation,” the idea that the response to a crisis is also perpetuating its cause. A recent CDC report noted that “while air conditioners may provide immediate health benefits, they also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions if they are using fossil fuels to provide air conditioning.”
Solutions aren’t simple, but we can, at least, mitigate risk, experts say.
Grossman, the climate change and public health expert, explained that with enough political will and investment, we can focus on emergency preparedness and “really good messaging” to get the word out before heat waves hit and convince people to take necessary precautions. She suggested public-private partnerships: getting people into box stores, for example, where they can cool down without being expected to make a purchase.
More broadly, Grossman said, we need to focus on redesigning our communities to be more climate resilient. And, echoing Jenko from Splinter, “Social capital is a huge protector,” Grossman said. We need to check up on our neighbors more, forge and strengthen networks, and make sure communities have a voice at the table.
John, a 68-year-old man originally from the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles, is sitting in front of a giant fan at Z Mansion.
“I like coming here,” he says. “I can cool down, take a shower.” John receives $804 dollars a month for social security. He says he is ineligible for food stamps, explaining that he was wrongly accused of selling his stamps a few years ago.
He says it was a misunderstanding. With $800 a month, there’s nowhere in town he can afford to live, pay bills, and feed himself.
“I don’t panhandle, I don’t beg, I don’t bum, I just keep to myself and do what I can to get by,” he says. “It’s hard.”
John sleeps rough six nights a week, usually stumping for one night in a motel to cool off — or warm up in the winter — find some safe alone time and watch TV.
“A lot of people don’t like living on the streets, but they can’t afford the rent,” he says.
John used to live in a trailer park in north central Tucson, paying $360 a month until the landlord decided to sell the property.
Asked what he sees as a solution to the twin threats of rising heat and rising homelessness, he shrugs, pauses for a few seconds, and says, “I only have one answer to that: Lower the damn rent.”