Hot in the City – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 19, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Even though it’s late in the night the temperature in the city right now is 82 degrees Fahrenheit, which actually feels like 84 degrees (29 degrees celsius). The temperature during the day today was much higher, again approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37C). All week it is set to climb, with extreme heat warnings in place for NYC for Thursday and Friday, and temperatures predicted to feel like 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C) on Friday.


What this means for homeless people is something very different to what it means for the homed.

We might find the heat very uncomfortable, a real nuisance; but for someone who spends all of their day outdoors, it can actually be lethal. A lot of overnight shelters in New York City are not air conditioned. Many soup kitchens run on bare minimum resources and are not equipped for high heat. Imagine preparing a meal for hundreds of people in 100 degree temperatures; imagine sleeping and eating in such a space. And imagine – because for many of those who sleep in the shelter system this is a reality – rising early from a stifling night and going out to your day job, to labor outdoors in the sun, before returning to an overcrowded, stuffy basement.


Heat-related illnesses are a real, life-threatening hazard. So much so that cities in the South of the U.S. set up day-shelters during the summer to provide cold drinking water and an air conditioned environment. Even so, homeless deaths from heat exhaustion are common. In Jessica Rowshandel’s article “Dying of Thirst… Right Here in North America,” risk factors for heat-related deaths during summer months are listed as follows: “homelessness, age (the very young or older adults), mental health or medical conditions, poverty, overexertion, social isolation and lack of air conditioning.” Because homeless people often suffer from several of those conditions, their likelihood of heat-collapse is high.


In one county in Arizona (Maricopa) so many homeless people died in a 2005 heat-wave that the county began a water-bottle donation campaign. Homed people were encouraged to skip a Starbucks coffee and use the money saved to buy and donate a reusable water bottle; as a result, many hundreds of bottles were given out to the homeless each day. Even so, in 2009 19% of the heat-related deaths in the county were homeless people.


Becky Blanton is a working homeless woman who gave an inspiring Ted talk  in 2009 (and who, like Mark Horvath is also accused of “grandstanding” and “self-promotion” – is there Tall Poppy Syndrome in the world of the homeless? Or are there people really capitalizing on sympathy for the homeless? See, for example, comments below this article by Becky to get a sense of the fervor of the debate). Blanton also provides tips to homeless people on how to deal with summer heat. These include advice to get out of the heat anyway you can: “Seek refuge in shopping malls, big box retail stores, public libraries or even parking garages or park shelters.”


Yesterday in NYC the humidity was high and the heat was so overwhelming that you had to take extra care to walk around slowly, else you might feel faint. A homeless woman entered one subway car I rode and attempted to sing Amazing Grace, but her voice cracked and her mouth was dry. She had no water bottle or drink on her. I gave her all the cash I had but it wasn’t much, and I was the only one who offered help. Which, as a side note, causes me to wonder whether female homeless people tend to receive fewer donations and less attention from the public than male homeless people. I’ve noticed that their presence seems to cause more discomfort, and more annoyance, than that of their male counterparts. In any case, the money she received from that subway car wasn’t enough to buy a drink.


Today it seemed as though the machinery, the screaming subway cars, the overworked air conditioners, and the swollen concrete had all accumulated vastly more energy; they steamed, everything exuded heat, everything smelled putrid. Subway stations are so sweltering you cannot wait in them for long without feeling faint. I am surprised I don’t see more people falling over in the thick, fume-ridden air; or passed out on the baking ground.


The homeless people I do see look extra tired, worn, ragged. I feel that as this project progresses I begin to see more and more, to notice more and more, the unhomed among us. I notice the way certain people (who might even be dressed well) cling tightly to their baggage, just as RD describes in this video. I notice that way the man who sings on the Shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square doesn’t have any teeth; that his shoes look second-hand; that his trousers don’t quite fit. I don’t feel nearly as much conflict about giving homeless people money as I used to, because from everything I’ve read and heard, they need it. That substance-abuse is less frequently the cause of homelessness than poverty, unemployment and a lack of housing options. That homelessness really could happen to you and me. That not having the option of air conditioning in a climate like this is an awful thought.


Over the coming days I’ll be following some of Becky’s tips, and taking bottles of iced water around with me to give to the homeless people I meet, as an offer of some sort of  -minor – respite from this heat.

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