‘The dead of heat’: How Southern Nevada helps the unhoused survive summer

By: - August 9, 2021 6:00 am

“Research finds that unsheltered homeless populations are among the most exposed and the most vulnerable during extreme heat events.” (Photo by Ronda Churchill)

Temperatures spiked to more than 110 degrees in Southern Nevada last week. It was the fourth time this summer the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning, which represents 18 days of extreme heat.

While most people can spend the hot day inside in air conditioned comfort, Paul Ge got on a bus and rode it for five hours, then he went to Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada where he stayed at its cooling station until the emergency night shelter there opened up.

Ge has been homeless for a little over a year after a falling out with his brother, who he was living with after their father’s death.

Until moving to Las Vegas to be his father’s caregiver, Ge had lived in Los Angeles. The heat here “was a shock at first,” he said.

He said he has seen other unhoused individuals die during the summer.

“It’s sad because it can be prevented by drinking water and taking care of themselves, but they don’t,” Ge said. “They succumb to this hot weather.”

The heat has always presented a risk for the unhoused, but Fuilala Riley, the CEO of HELP of Southern Nevada, said the higher and prolonged temperatures are becoming more worrisome especially for those experiencing homelessness. 

“This is a lot of heat, even for us,” Riley said. “You can imagine it’s probably going to be the same way for the coming years.”

With each warning, cooling stations are activated, water bottles are distributed to those experiencing homelessness and service providers and government agencies work to ensure those living on the streets survive the grueling heat.

But the increased frequency of excessive triple digits, all the more likely as climate change brings on extreme whether events, requires more long-term planning.

Michele Fuller-Hallauer, Clark County social service manager, said Clark County is working on updating its emergency response plans to better address extreme weather like massive and prolonged heat waves. 

“(The plan) doesn’t lay out if it’s a heat wave or a tornado or that type of thing. If it’s a natural disaster, this is what you do,” she said. “A heat wave is a natural disaster, at least in our book. It doesn’t always mean it’s a community response in that way. But as far as the homeless services’ response, that’s the way we feel it is.”

The heat has negatively affected those experiencing homelessness, but the county hasn’t had the bandwidth to do a study to show just how drastic the effects have been, Fuller-Hallauer said.

A new study conducted by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada could potentially shed light on how the extreme heat has affected Southern Nevada’s most vulnerable.

The final report is expected to be published in October, but the RTC has published some preliminary findings

The Extreme Heat Vulnerability Project fact sheet shows there were:

  • 23 excessive heat warnings from 2015 to 2019
  • 84 days in 2019 alone that had temperatures higher than 100 degrees 
  • 568 heat-related deaths between 2009 and 2018, though it doesn’t break it down by how many cases were unhoused.

In an email, Rae Lathrop, the regional planning manager with the RTC said that the project does take into consideration homelessess and used data from the 2019 Homeless Census within its analysis.

“Research finds that unsheltered homeless populations are among the most exposed and the most vulnerable during extreme heat events,” Lathrop added.

Information previously provided by the Clark County’s coroner’s office showed there were 186 deaths among homeless or transient populations in 2020, a spike from 147 deaths in 2019

Both years showed more than 30 deaths where heat played a role even if it wasn’t listed as the main cause of death.

Speaking before Clark County commissioners last week, UMC’s CEO Mason Van Houweling said “the heat is taking a toll” on emergency room services with more heat-related issues. 

In an email, UMC told Nevada Current the Adult Emergency Department saw a 75% increase in heat exposure cases this summer compared to last year. That doesn’t include issues like cardiac arrest related to heat stroke. 

‘Where do we take folks in the dead heat?’

It was nearing 105 degrees on a recent Wednesday afternoon when Ge arrived at Catholic Charities’ cooling station.

Eric Myers, assistant director of campus security at Catholic Charities, who keeps a watchful eye on those coming in off the streets, said because some experiencing homelessness are also in the thick of mental health issues, they don’t realize how dangerous the summer can be. 

“Some people will still walk around with leather jackets,” he said. “We’ve had some unfortunate incidents in year’s past where people died outside of the property. They don’t know that the ground is 150 degrees in the heat. We try to be proactive so we don’t have to be reactive.”

The cooling station, he said, is an opportunity to keep them safe and hydrated. 

Leading up to the summer months, service providers, nonprofits and governments set up a system to activate  when the heat reaches life-threatening heights. 

“From a service provider level, we are having conversations about when we’re getting help, whether we have sponsors to purchase items and donors to bring in water,” Riley said. “We comb through our budgets to purchase life sustaining things. For the people who won’t come in (to shelter) regardless of what we do, we’re purchasing sunscreen, cooling towels when we can afford it, and bottled water.”

One of the focuses in Southern Nevada has been cooling stations and making sure they can be functional at a moment’s notice. 

“We start talking to community organizers about what are the plans for the cooling stations because that’s critical,” Riley said. “Where do we take folks in the dead heat of the day, especially if they are willing to go?”

Fuller-Hallauer, the county’s social services manager, said since 2005 the county has also “worked with the weather station to identify what the triggers would be for opening cooling stations that factors in wind and exposure time.” 

“We notice and try to keep an eye to the future,” she said. “But the weather changes dramatically in the blink of an eye so we may not have a lot of planning time. As soon as we know it’s going to be high we send a mass email to our partners and say we need to activate cooling stations and (ask) are you available?”

Outreach teams working on case management and client assessments with unhoused folks will direct them to cooling stations during extreme heats. 

But cooling stations and other mitigation efforts are tricky during the pandemic, because providers also have to maintain social distancing and other mitigation efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

“It has been a challenge or was a challenge early last summer with trying to figure out social distancing configurations but we were really thankful our cooling station partners were able to figure that out fairly quickly and get that addressed and we were able to operate as normal.”  Fuller-Hallauer said.

Before COVID, Fuller-Hallauer added the county would also reach out to faith and civic groups to work in conjunction with outreach workers to hand out extra water or towels soaked in ice water.

“We have not been able to do it being extra cautious because of COVID,” she said. “We were handing those items out to people who didn’t want to go into cooling stations, so people could stay cool and hydrated out in the elements. We haven’t had teams come forward to volunteer to do that this year or last. We haven’t really pushed that, out of an abundance of caution.”

Riley said outreach teams will also freeze cases of water the night before they go out into encampments. At the very least, it ensures water stays cold a little while longer. 

Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher, with the City of Las Vegas, said the Courtyard “has traditionally been a cooling station as well even though it is an outdoor facility.” 

“We do have those power breezers, which is what they use to cool airplane hangers so they generally bring the temperature down 20 degrees.” she said.

But even that has its limits. 

In mid-July when temperatures reached 117 degrees, the city opened Dula Gym, which operated from July 11 to 15 as a temporary cooling station and an overnight shelter. Dula was opened again last Wednesday with yet another excessive heat warning.

“If it’s 117 degrees, bringing the temperature down 20 degrees is still too hot.” Bluitt-Fisher said.

She added the city evaluates every day whether it needs to open Dula as an indoor center. 

“This is the first summer where we’ve really had this kind of prolonged high temperatures here in Southern Nevada so we are evaluating and trying to make decisions as needs arise,” Bluitt-Fisher said. “Opening Dula was a good first step, but I’m sure there would be continued conversations on how we address heat and cooling stations moving forward.”  

While the county is working to update emergency plans, the solution has always been increasing housing supply.

“We are focusing on permanent housing and getting folks out of their unhoused situation and housed permanently,” Fuller-Hallauer said. “If we can get folks to an unhoused situation to permanency, with or without support whatever their need is, then regardless of what the weather does with climate change we are doing our due diligence as homeless service providers at getting people housed.”

Last year, data presented to the Southern Nevada Continuum of Care showed homeless services were underfunded by more than $300 million each year. Southern Nevada has a $31 million shortfall in rapid re-housing funding alone.

While providers like HELP of Southern Nevada have been able to place people in permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing and transitional housing programs, many ready to move on are stuck because of the lack of affordable housing. 

“We have a bottleneck right now in our permanent supportive housing and if we can solve some of that, it creates space in the system,” Riley said. “If we don’t have anywhere to take people (on the streets), all we are doing is providing them some shade and air conditioning for a few hours a day.”

The state and municipalities are starting to have conversations about spending the $6.7 billion of federal funding the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act. 

Many see that money as an opportunity for Southern Nevada to address the region’s housing crisis, which would then alleviate gaps within homeless services. 

When that system is addressed and invested, it will ultimately keep people safe during the summer months. 

“Our efforts are about building a system of care to prevent homelessness when possible and when we can’t do that to get folks housed as quickly as possible,” Fuller-Hallauer said. “If we are successful and we can get as many resources, then we won’t need to worry as much about those emergency plans for climate change for our unhoused because we have done our job and have gotten folks housed.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.