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How Can the U.S. Assist the Homeless Amid Climate Change? - The YEARS Project

How Can the U.S. Assist the Homeless Amid Climate Change?

Open up the New York Times, and you're bound to find some coverage on the American West's water crisis, paved by a climate change-induced drought boiling since the turn of the 21st century. 


But in the shadows, a water crisis looms throughout Phoenix, Ariz. streets, not caused by western civilization's shrinking water supply but by indifference to the health of those experiencing homelessness. 


On Madison Street and 12th Ave., near downtown, hundreds of homeless individuals occupy the sidewalks of a mega-encampment called the Zone. On certain days of the week, the police arrive at 6 a.m. to clean. 


As a resident of the Zone, if you’re not around at this time, chances are the police will toss your belongings, from blankets to social security cards, an article said


The closest food bank serves breakfast at the same time. Some must choose between protecting their stuff or grabbing food and water.


These sweeps also drive people out of encampments, where volunteer groups keep water readily available. Many are forced to join encampments in underdeveloped areas where volunteer groups do not visit, a study said. 


Amid a warming climate, which plagues Phoenix more than the majority of U.S. states, water is the most valuable resource. Yet 15.5 percent of public water resources used by those experiencing homelessness as reported by city administrators, are "unsanitary to the point of dysfunction, closed or locked during open hours, or inaccessible due to other factors such as private events," according to the study. 


The numbers show that Phoenix's homelessness has risen 302 percent since 2014. For the U.S.' eighth-fastest warming city, that same amount of time generated a 430 percent increase in heat-related deaths.


The Phoenix homeless are not alone in this skirmish with the climate crisis. In California, the 2018 Camp Fire displaced 40,000 people for at least one year afterward. Florida's wealthy home buyers push low-income families out of inland houses due to the growing appeal of hurricane-protected neighborhoods. 


Across the U.S., climate change exacerbates air pollution, heat waves, and viral diseases like West Nile Virus. These disproportionately affect the health of homeless populations, especially those with high rates of pre-existing medical conditions. 


It also increases extreme cold spells, hitting homeless populations with considerable force. When altered by climate change, the jet stream, a large, heavy ribbon of air currents that regulate weather, can push cold, arctic air into the U.S. The country's homeless are 16-times more likely to die from hypothermia, a state of excessively low body temperature caused by cold weather. 


Climate change causes and worsens homelessness, and it isn't slowing down. Countries worldwide still burn more than 4,000 times the amount of fossil fuels they did in 1776. 


In 2020, the U.S. spent $660 billion subsidizing fossil fuels, according to an International Monetary Fund report. Divide that number by 11, and you'll calculate how much it would cost to provide housing vouchers to all eligible low-income families in the U.S. 


In other words, the U.S. federal government's contribution to climate change significantly outweighs its efforts to keep people off the streets, where they are most vulnerable to heat waves, natural disasters, and pathogens fueled by the crisis. 


To narrow in on solutions for helping U.S. homeless populations adapt to climate change, I spoke with Cathy Alderman, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless' chief communications and public policy officer. 


The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provides help with housing and health care for people experiencing homelessness and thus, in a way, works on the frontlines of climate change. 


Alderman moved to Denver in 2005 at a time when she said air conditioning was not a necessity. Now it is. Today, "more than 100,000 people living in Colorado are especially vulnerable to extreme heat," according to States at Risk


Q: How is climate change affecting those experiencing homelessness in your community?


A: Most people who stay on the streets rather than accessing shelter are in urban environments where the [urban heat island effect] exposes folks to unimaginable heat without regular access to water, sanitation, or spaces that have air conditioning. Many of our rec centers and shelters weren't built with air conditioning. We haven't needed it in the past and now it's something that we need. 


I'll also say that Colorado, over the last 5 or 6 years, has seen a huge increase in wildfire activity. While that wildfire activity isn't necessarily in the urban environments where the largest population of people experiencing homelessness resides, it has a huge impact on air quality. For folks sleeping outside, that can be really harmful because most of them have pre-existing health conditions like heart conditions or respiratory illnesses. 


Q: Scientists say that climate change is not a 2050 problem; it's a now problem. What steps should policy-makers take right now to help the homeless adapt to climate change? 


A: The first thing, and this became really apparent during COVID-19, is that homelessness is not really a part of our emergency response systems. I just think, bumping homelessness up as a foremost consideration for any natural disaster is really critical. 


Second, it is not enough to bring somebody into an emergency response system and then release them into another dangerous situation. We need to be working with individuals on long-term housing options. 


We need to invest in housing. And we have to invest in smart housing, energy-efficient housing, close to transportation because so many people experiencing homelessness don't have their own transportation, and we need to make sure that housing will be safe in the long run. 


Q: Considering the importance of long-term housing options amid the climate crisis, could you explain the "housing first" framework that your organization and many others support, and its benefits? 


A: The idea is that you meet with [people experiencing homelessness] and you house them. You don't make them meet prerequisites to get into housing. You don't say, "you only deserve housing if you're sober, or if you're employed." Then, you figure out the issues that led to their homelessness. If you provide housing first, and then address those issues, it is much more likely that the individual will be successful on a long-term basis. 


We just completed a study called the Denver Social Impact Bond, where we identified 250 chronically homeless individuals in Denver, and we gave them housing. At the end of the three-year study, we had a 77 percent housing stability rate, meaning that people stayed in housing. Their health was improving, their likelihood for employment was improving, and their access to substance use treatment services and mental health services was improving. 


Housing is way less expensive than letting people languish in emergency systems. It's twice as expensive to leave somebody in the criminal justice system, using shelters, using the emergency room, and detox facilities, as it is to house somebody. 


Q: How can everyday U.S. citizens support policies and actions that will help people experiencing homelessness through the climate crisis? 


It's just keeping this community in mind, advocating for the things we've talked about in terms of housing resources. A lot of cities across the U.S. have camping bans that essentially say, "you can't sleep outside." And that's it. They don't say, "instead you can go to the shelter," or "instead you can go into this housing," they just say, "you can't be here." That's not a solution.