Summer Heat Brings Increase in Health Risks for Florida’s Homeless

For unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness, the summer brings challenges due to extreme heat and adverse conditions. This summer may be the hardest yet as many solutions for these problems are no longer an option due to COVID-19.

Story and Photo by Miranda Schumes

Summertime typically brings fun in the sun, time spent with loved ones, and late-night cookouts, but for the more than 11,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in Florida, it can bring a lack of water, infection and little sufficient shelter.

According to Leeanne Sacino — the executive director of the Florida Coalition to End Homelessness — dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat strokes are some of the most common issues that people experiencing homelessness face in the summer.

Randall Graham, the operations supervisor of the Palm Beach County Homeless Services Programs, said that some individuals try to avoid the heat by staying with friends in wooded areas. Others, he said, spend the day at a library to take advantage of the A/C, “Sometimes they go and read books, hang out all day — sometimes they even fall asleep there. A lot of them stay there all day because it’s so hot.” Some people, Graham says, will even ride buses during the day for hours, sleeping on them to escape the sun and harsh conditions.

“I’m getting older now and I don’t want to get skin cancer,” Smooth said. “I’m getting these freckles and stuff. I don’t know if they’re cancer or what they are. I’ve just got to be careful.”

During COVID-19, many libraries have been closed or have been operating on limited hours though, forcing more people experiencing homelessness to stay outside and brave the heat.

Prior to the virus, one man experiencing homelessness in Palm Beach County — who goes by the nickname Smooth — frequently visited libraries to stay cool and avoid the sun. Now, he’s even avoiding riding on buses due to the threat of COVID-19. Smooth also used to stay cool by sitting inside restaurants, but that too is no longer an option either with many only offering takeout or outdoor seating.

With libraries, buses, and restaurants no longer an option, he has resorted to shaded areas like under a tree. “I’m getting older now and I don’t want to get skin cancer,” Smooth said. “I’m getting these freckles and stuff. I don’t know if they’re cancer or what they are. I’ve just got to be careful.”

The sun and heat leads to a variety of other problems as well, especially for people who take medication. According to Sancino, “Persons with medical conditions may be more affected in the heat. Like some medications make individuals hotter, while some medications don’t survive the heat.”

For some, extreme heat can also lead to increased feelings of agitation. For Smooth, being uncomfortable in the heat also brings about feelings of sadness, which can later turn into anger. “[The heat] is a big discomfort for me. I don’t have a home, my parents are gone. I don’t have anybody. My girlfriend and I split up. I don’t have a family life anymore,” Smooth said. “I’ll get angry and that’s not good because I don’t want to lash out.”

In addition to emotional distress, the intense summer heat also leads to more sweating. According to Sacino, “There’s a higher risk of skin infections with sweating. So, especially foot ulcers, wet feet because of the socks getting wet — those things are worse in the summertime.”

The summertime also brings out swarms of bugs. “More bugs means more biting and risk of infections or allergic reactions,” Sacino said.

Many people experiencing homelessness try to combat these issues by showering at beaches, churches, shelters, or local agencies. In addition to a shower, these places — besides the beach — also provide bottles of drinking water and food.

Still, travelling to these locations can pose its own challenges. “During the summer, it is very difficult because a lot of individuals may not have bicycles. A lot of people may not have bus passes to get on public transportation to take them to pantry areas, or different churches, or different agencies who provide water,” Graham said. “A lot of those individuals have to walk, and some of the distances that they walk is a long way. And it’s hot, so a lot of them have a very difficult time.”

Graham noted that there are also social service agencies and outreach workers that drive around Palm Beach County for those who cannot make it to a shelter. They provide assistance to homeless individuals in need, do wellness checks, conduct assessments, and provide bottled water.

“We have outreach staff out in the community everyday, all day,” Graham said. “The outreach staff members know where the encampments are, where there’s wooded areas, where there’s individuals living under bridges, abandoned houses, alleys, [and] train stations. We have several teams, and they specialize in designated areas of the county, and they know where the homeless people are located.”

These agencies and outreach teams are often essential when it comes to ensuring the safety of people experiencing homelessness, like during hurricane season, when the teams help bring people to a shelter before a storm.

“They know these homeless people sometimes by their first name, and also these homeless individuals know the outreach team by their first name. So when hurricane season is here, we reach out to all of those individuals and give them all of the available information,” Graham continued.

On top of this, the social service agencies and outreach teams also provide transportation to emergency shelters or sometimes give individuals bus passes to travel to them. Smooth has taken advantage of these shelters in the past. During Hurricane Irma, he stayed at Boynton Beach Community High School, “Everybody was okay, and [the shelter] fed me. They were nice people. I got along fine,” Smooth said.

Fortunately, there are ways that the public can help too, like offering individuals food, water, and money. But, according to Graham, while it is great to offer necessities, people should also call social service agencies when they see a person experiencing homelessness in mental or physical distress.

“Let the social service agencies know so they can reach out and offer these individuals the substance abuse, mental health, medical, and housing services,” Graham said. “[Social service agencies] know exactly what to do and how to do it. They can get these individuals the help they need.”

Sacino encourages people to donate hats, socks, t-shirts, bottled water, bug spray, and bandages to day shelters and outreach locations, donating food to food banks as well. She also recommends directly donating to shelters and local homeless service agencies in general, as donations are typically down in the summer due to there being less snowbirds, and are even further down due to COVID-19.

“During the summer you may see more persons experiencing homelessness — just show compassion. They are people. They’re just looking for a cool place to be,” Sacino said.

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