Above: A homeless encampment stands outside the entrance to St. Vincent de Paul, one of just a few low-barrier shelters in Oakland, CA. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Unhoused Californians are among the most at risk from extreme heat, according to government experts. Three homeless veterans of the Bay Area’s summer heat waves say their most important tips for surviving the rising temperatures have come from other unhoused people.
All say it’s the fellowship of others around them and the advice offered by those who have lived longer on the streets that help them face long, hot days.
Dexcelle Camins, originally from Hercules, relies on the resources of St. Vincent de Paul, one of Oakland’s few low-barrier shelters, to find sanctuary through the night. But such shelters routinely check visitors out by midday, leaving them at the mercy of the city in its hottest hours.
Hotter temps, fewer resources
While California agencies have increased investments in heat mitigation measures like cooling centers, unhoused people say the situation differs drastically across counties. Cutbacks in public funding have meant that public resource centers offer less and less to the unhoused. Public libraries are closing or have increasingly limited hours. Some cities open public cooling centers only on days when temperatures peak past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and close for the night.
Each city also has different ordinances around being unsheltered in public, forcing people in some cases to stay mobile while trying to avoid the heat, noted Camins.
Summers are indeed getting hotter, with the hottest eight years ever recorded having come in the last decade. Heat contributes to about 1,500 U.S. deaths annually, AP reports, and many advocates estimate that half of these fatalities are among the unhoused.
Governor Gavin Newsom’s Exreme Heat Action Plan, backed by over $400 million dollars, has promised to guide California’s response to heatwaves in all counties by helping communities statewide keep their cooling centers open.
“When it gets really hot, usually you just stay outside,” Camins said, adding that at 5 p.m. on most days, a long line forms outside St. Vincent’s along San Pablo Avenue as people bake in the late afternoon sun waiting to enter for the night.
Camins said she learned how to stay cool and safe from older people who had no choice other than to be outdoors during a heat wave.
“I see people staying under bridges and underpasses just to stay cool,” she said. “People like to go to the lake because there’s a strong breeze there… There’s a couple of residents who are older and they’re weaker and get more tired. They stay under a covering or something.”
Some people make the trek to a public library to get through the hottest parts of the day. “Sometimes people just ride the bus and stay cool for a little bit,” she added.
‘Blindsided’ by hotter weather
Jason Gaines, who has lived unsheltered in Oakland for 15 years, previously lived in New York City and Atlanta. “In those other places, they are well prepared in most of the buildings for heat – they either have large fans or air conditioning. Out here, the infrastructure is just not designed for high heat or humidity.”
Gaines said that longtime residents or those who stay in Oakland because of its reputation for mild weather are bound to be surprised by increasingly hot summers as climate change intensifies. “They may be blindsided,” he said.
Scientists anticipate that by the end of this century heat waves in Oakland could be as much as 9 degrees hotter.
Gaines also shared tips he’s picked up over the years from other unsheltered people. “Water is number one,” he said. “If you find a public place where there’s cooling and AC, that’s beneficial.”
For the elderly who tend to be less mobile, “People who are in that situation typically have someone who is looking after them,” he said. “But that’s just a guess.”
Parks or anywhere with shade are ideal places, according to Camins, though they are also more likely to be patrolled by police who in some cities – Oakland included – are taking a tougher stance on homeless encampments.
“If you stay out there too long, someone is going to say something,” Camins said, adding that people will often take their chances anyway to survive the heat.
The Incense Man
Tyrone Ford, who just turned 50, has lived in an abandoned car for most of the last year on an alley in San Francisco that has a dead end on one side and so has relatively little traffic. He learned about the car from another homeless person who had lived in it undisturbed for two weeks before moving into an apartment.
“We met at a bus stop. When you are on the street it’s easier to initiate conversation with a stranger – you have no one else to talk to,” Ford said.
Living in the car, just being able to go inside, was far better than living on the sidewalk – except when the sun was right on top of the car, Ford said. “I would leave the door open a crack and make sure I had water with me. Water and fruit helped me beat the heat.”
Ford said he goes from time to time to St Anthony’s to eat and get a shower “but they serve so many people, overtime I was just number 300 in line.” The city also has street ambassadors who pass out water and food. “That’s a beautiful thing,” Ford added.
While heat waves can be intense, fentanyl has made things a lot edgier on the streets, he continued, as people are desperate to get the narcotic. “The most difficult thing if you are living on the streets is finding a safe place and finding people who won’t take your stuff.” He heard from others that things were not like this even a year and a half ago.
“The heat can exacerbate your feelings–you have to maintain your center so you don’t get overwhelmed. I try not to complain. Your attitude is the most important thing that will get you through.”
Ford said he is known in tough neighborhoods like the Tenderloin as the Incense Man because he always carries lighted incense. Sometimes cops will come by and give him a couple of dollars.
“It goes everywhere, like the sum of everyone’s prayers. I don’t have much to contribute, but I try to do something to help me and to help others,” Ford said.
“People who live on the streets talk to each other, we have conversations that encourage each other,” Ford added. “ I tell people Jesus slept outside, remember that. In Matthew 8 it says, ‘Birds have nests, foxes have holes, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ When I tell people that, they feel encouraged.”
This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Office of Community Partnerships and Strategic Communication for their Heat Ready CA public awareness and outreach campaign. Visit Heat Ready CA to learn more.
Additional reporting by Sandy Close.