A Change for the Worse: Homelessness and Climate Change

Mary’s Kitchen patrons Aisha (left) and Dean (right)

In winter, most people can simply put on their coats, dawn their beanies, and endure weather with relative ease. In summer, air conditioning and easy access to hydration make the heat a mostly irrelevant issue. But for the homeless, these everyday climates can become a lethal problem.

By Alexander Cardona

Some have neither the luxury of a comfortable home nor the liberty to have a good night’s sleep. Homelessness is an issue that can affect anyone anywhere—including right here in Orange County.

Gloria Suess is the CEO and current President of Mary’s Kitchen, an organization in Orange County that seeks to accommodate the homeless and assist those in dire need. Mary’s Kitchen operates Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and provides breakfast, lunch, showers, and clothes for those who need it. Suess is a hard worker, and she constantly strives to ease the burdens of Orange County’s homeless population.

“You’re probably thinking, ‘what led these people to be like this?” Suess says whilst discussing with a man whom she had helped. “Is it because they’re ‘uneducated?’ Well, it’s often because of just one bad decision.”

While Suess and her volunteer staff strive to provide and care for homeless individuals that come to their facility, their business hours do not last all day. For the hours they are closed, their visitors must find another way to cope with the blistering heat of the sun and the eventual cold of the night. Climate is not the first word that comes to mind when one considers the issues that affect the homeless. Yet climate is one of the hardest obstacles for a homeless individual to overcome. For those fortunate enough to have homes and sustainable incomes, the effects of the climate is a variable that can be easily manipulated. In winter, most people can simply put on their coats, dawn their beanies, and endure weather with relative ease. In summer, air conditioning and easy access to hydration make the heat a mostly irrelevant issue. But for the homeless, these everyday climates can become a lethal problem.

“They don’t let you sleep anywhere,” says Dean, a patron of Mary’s Kitchen struggling to find shelter. “They [the police] don’t even let you sleep in your car.”

And this is true. While this law can vary state to state, in Orange County, it is illegal for someone to sleep in their car overnight. This forces the homeless to seek refuge wherever they can find it.

For many residents of Orange County, this refuge was found in the Santa Ana Riverbed. Unfortunately, Orange County officials have started to remove the homeless encampments from the riverbed as of Jan. 22, 2018. The riverbed was home to upwards of 500 homeless inhabitants and had become somewhat of a community. However, despite the riverbed being a place of refuge for the homeless, its weather conditions are far less than ideal.

“It gets really cold,” Dean says, referring to the times he slept on the riverbed. “You just have to wear layers and layers of clothes. Oh, and it gets freezing down by the riverbed. The wind chill there has to lower the temperature by at least 15 degrees.”

In the late hours of the night to early hours of the morning, the temperature in Orange County can drop to around 45 degrees F. Coupled with the wind chill from the riverbed, its residents can be forced to cope with temperatures that can reach below freezing.

This means that frostbite and hypothermia are real dangers for the homeless. Frostbite is an injury caused by the freezing of the skin and usually affects the body’s extremities: the ears, fingers, toes, and face. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops to around 95 F, of its usual 98.6 F, as the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The condition can induce shivering, confusion, loss of consciousness and ultimately death.

For Dean, he had access to clothes that made the riverbed conditions at least somewhat bearable. But for others less prepared, these conditions can be fatal.

Additionally, the blistering heat is a problem that is much more prominent for the homeless in California. With the rapidly increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, temperature extremes can become a much more frequent occurrence. Intense heat can leave one prone to heatstroke and dehydration, and these conditions can be hastened and amplified in urban areas where the pavement and buildings retain and absorb excess amounts of heat.

“Dehydration is a real problem. I usually go to the library, personally. But yeah, it’s basically just dehydration,” Dean says, discussing hot summers. “Mary’s Kitchen usually gives out fruit during lunch, and fruit’s great. Water will help you out for a bit, but fruit will stick with you all day.”

It is this constant struggle against the climate and elements that keeps the homeless stagnant in where they are. Dean is plagued with mental health problems. Yet, he can’t seek assistance or a diagnosis for his condition because he spends all his resources just trying to survive.

“Insanity really,” continues Dean when asked about what lead to his homelessness. “It sucks. It’s hard to come to terms with something wrong in your mind. And you can’t afford it either. I’d rather just have a milkshake over a therapist.”

Dean has been going to Mary’s Kitchen for over 6 years, and he loves it. Yet while the community at Mary’s Kitchen is something to be desired, shelters are also an option when it comes to helping the homeless combat the climate.

“Heat can be a real issue when we have prolonged periods of high temperatures,” says Herb Smith, president of the Los Angeles Mission shelter, “but most often, simple hydration is the key to weathering the heat.”

Smith also states that his shelter provides bottled water and keeps their lobby air-conditioned and open during the scathing summer days. Combating the cold isn’t as difficult, however.

“Again, we keep our lobby open and provide warm beverages like tea and hot chocolate. Extreme cold weather is not a real issue for us in Los Angeles as it can be for some areas of the country,” Herb continues. “We also provide warm clothing: jackets, tarps and blankets upon request to help against the cold.”

As Smith says, the cold isn’t the main problem in Los Angeles. For most of California’s homeless population, it is the heat.

California only just recently freed itself from the “five-year drought” that plagued the entirety of the state. These periods of extended dry seasons will eventually lead to greater fluctuations between extreme cold and extreme heat. It is these extremes that pave the way for even greater changes in the weather and climate. The Thomas Fire took firefighters from early December 2017 until Jan. 12, 2018, to fully contain the flames that incinerated most of Southern California. While the blaze spread greatly due to the Santa Ana winds, it was the surplus dry grasses created by 2017’s lack of rain that led to the destruction of over 280,000 acres of land.

This fire has contributed to further homelessness, as the Thomas Fire is now California’s largest fire to date, and destroyed approximately 3,000 structures and hundreds of homes.

Reckless consumption of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases endangers the space that everyone shares. While a few extra days of extreme heat may seem trivial to those that can afford it, for a homeless man or woman it can be suffering, agonizing, or even a death sentence.

Climate change is an imposing danger to the long term safety of the world with winter’s freezing nights, summer’s scorching sun, and wildfires burning hotter and longer. For the homeless, that danger is already here.

Alexander Cardona is a second year English major pursuing an emphasis in Creative Writing. While he loves writing for fun, he want his writing to have an impact on society as well— and what better way than through UCI’s own InSight Magazine!

Alex can be followed at alexthetruth on instagram.

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