When temperatures spike, as they did during last week’s heat wave, the first to feel the heat are often the area’s homeless residents.
Area experts say though most homeless citizens are resilient and able to make do with existing resources, many particularly women, families and those with illnesses – struggle to find shelter and stay hydrated when temperatures climb.
Some local shelters have responded to the heat by allowing residents to stay longer than they would normally. Still, the weather places added stress on already strained lives – and on the agencies that serve them.
“Many [homeless] are not healthy to begin with,” said Frank McGuire, who heads the Alfred Washburn Center. The Washburn Center is a ministry of the Catholic Society of St. Vincent De Paul that distributes aid to the homeless.
The center is housed in a nondescript facility tucked away on the city’s west side, behind a used tire store on Pensacola Boulevard. Each day, between 125 and 250 people show up there to check their mail, shower, do laundry and be fed.
That number has fallen off lately. McGuire said many homeless opted to stay in the woods, rather than face the swelter.
The National Weather Service in Mobile issued a heat advisory last week, when temperatures rose into the low 90s and heat indices topped 100 degrees. That advisory has since been lifted, but temperatures remain high.
“When it gets real hot like this,” McGuire said, “They want to stay out of the sun. They want to stay in the tents. If they venture outside, they’re either on foot or on a bike. In this weather, depending on how far they have to travel, it’s brutal.”
Staying hydrated can be difficult. At the Washburn Center, a line forms by the faucets each morning at 8 a.m.
“They come into the center with empty jugs,” McGuire said, “and they fill those jugs and carry as many as they can back to the camp in backpacks.”
Wednesday morning, about 50 men and women wandered about the Washburn Center grounds, with some sprawling on picnic tables under the shade of towering oak trees. In a far corner of the property, Betty Giusto sat with a few others cooling herself with a paper fan.
A native Pensacolian and lab technician by trade, she moved to Colorado late in life to care for her terminally ill mother. When she returned, in 2009, the area was in the throes of the Great Recession, and she couldn’t find work. Unemployed and without a support system, she wound up on the street, living in a tent until she could get back on her feet, she said.
Giusto is no longer living on the street, but she still struggles to make ends meet and relies on the Washburn Center for basic necessities. She said the summers were brutal for the homeless.
“This year, there’s a lot of need for batteries,” she said, “like for the portable fans we use. We get bowls of water … to keep it cool in the tent – and towels. Everybody was asking me for towels, too, cause you can soak them and cool yourself off.”
A few paces away, David Evans sat at another table, sucking on an ice-cold popsicle. Evans has been on and off the street for 15 months, he said. He is staying with a sister now in Englewood and collecting disability for his asthma, high blood pressure and a heart condition. Like Giusto, though, he relies on the Washburn Center to make ends meet.
His only source of transportation is his bike, and he struggles to get around in the swelter – having to pause and rest from time to time to avoid getting overheated and catch his breath.
“I’ll be glad when it gets cold,” he said.
For others, the situation is more severe.
“I’ve spent quite a few hours in the hospital this week visiting homeless,” McGuire said. “... If they have any sort of respiratory condition … they’re dying with this stuff. They’re all straining and struggling to get a breath of air.”
Dehydration and heat exhaustion are an ever-present threat, said Jessica Simpson, a spokesperson for the Waterfront Rescue Mission, a Pensacola-based nonprofit that provides assistance and rehabilitative services to the homeless.
“A lot of people who are homeless suffer from substance abuse and (alcohol) addiction,” she said. “If you’re in 100-degree weather and you’re dealing with an addiction like that, you get dehydrated considerably faster.”
Daniel Mines, who directs a walk-in clinic on the mission’s Pensacola campus, said he had seen a modest influx of patients with heat-related ailments – between one and two a day in recent weeks.
Mines said he had referred several to emergency rooms for treatment, because the clinic – in its first summer of operation – is not yet equipped to provide IV treatment.
Homeless women and families are especially vulnerable to the heat, Simpson said, adding that a woman had been admitted to the emergency room on Monday, after being brought to the clinic dehydrated. She returned to the mission after being released, but had to return to her tent because the mission is only able to offer overnight housing to men.
“There’s absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, not enough overnight shelters for women and families,” she said.
Both the Waterfront Mission and an emergency clinic operated by the Salvation Army were filled to capacity Monday night and had relaxed their normal rules to accommodate more people.
At the Salvation Army, residents normally can stay a maximum of 14 days during any one-year period and are required to enroll in a 90-day program. At the Waterfront Mission, residents can normally stay only three nights per month. Both organizations suspend these rules during extreme weather events like this week’s heat wave.
“When we have these indexes of 105 or so, we see a lot of influx into our shelter,” Bob Cornett, of the Salvation Army, said. “Oftentimes, they’re not looking for the 90-day program ... but just looking to escape the heat for the day.”
This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.