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The District has been under a heat emergency for several days, and no one has been left untouched, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and not cooling off much at night.
Many individuals are able to duck into air-conditioned homes and offices. The homeless, however, can’t. As part of its heat emergency plan, the District has opened cooling centers and extended hours at some shelters, pools, and spray parks. The United Planning Organization’s drivers move around the city in vans, picking up individuals in danger and bringing them to cooling locations when temperatures are high.
Albert Townsend, who was unhoused between 2008 and 2011, says the problem for homeless people in the District is not lack of places to go during a heat wave, but a lack of communication. They may not know cooling places exist, where they are, or how to get there, says Townsend, a 52-year-old advocate for the homeless who regularly testifies before the D.C. Council.
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This gap in communication is dangerous, he says, because “folks [are] still out there in the midst of the summer where they could maybe die from heat exhaustion.”
“In the winter time there’s better communication around what’s going to happen,” he says. But in the summertime, “if you look around the city there’s people laying in the parks and on the concrete.”
Even if individuals do know where they can go in the heat, it may be hard for them to get there. “It’s easier to stay put in the summertime because even moving two blocks is a chore,” Townsend says.
Dr. Anne Cardile, medical director of the Federal City Health Center at the CCNV shelter complex, points out that there are numbers citizens can call if they see someone who looks to be in trouble: (202) 399-7093, (800) 535-7252, or 211. But while health issues caused by the cold may be obvious, problems related to heat are more insidious.
On Wednesdays, Cardile goes out on Unity Health Care’s medical van. During the summer, she sees a rise in respiratory ailments and more gruesome illnesses. “There’s also a worsening in skin conditions,” she says. “If people are struggling with chronic sweating they get wet and warm which leads to skin breakdown.”
Townsend says “more robust conversation centered around listening to the community” is needed to keep the homeless safe during the summer. It would also be helpful, Cardile says, if the District government increased access to public toilets and showers. “We always have to be attentive to the most vulnerable in our city,” she says.