Heat waves in Denver pose a greater health risk to homeless residents

Summers in Denver are getting hotter every year. Climate experts believe that residents should be prepared for this trend to continue in the coming years. Residents are encouraged to stay cool by using air conditioning if they have access, drinking plenty of water, eating hydrating foods and finding shade when possible. For most people, this is not a problem.

For the uninhabited population of Denver, this is hardly possible.

Homeless people in Denver are extremely vulnerable to the effects of heat, especially those who live outdoors. Along with few urban resources and overburdened community organizations, extreme heat becomes as dangerous as freezing winter temperatures.

People who are homeless face increased health risks due to the heat

Photo courtesy of Denver Homeless on Facebook

Experts are suggesting that cities across the country prepare and act accordingly for rising temperatures to become the norm in summer. Denver was no exception, with more than 40 days above 90 degrees recorded as of August 3.

“In addition to the direct effects of hyperthermia, extreme temperatures can also worsen chronic diseases such as cardiovascular, respiratory and cerebrovascular diseases, as well as diabetes-related conditions. People with mental and behavioral health disorders, as well as the elderly, are at particularly high risk of adverse outcomes,” said Dr. Sterling McLaren, DDPHE Chief Medical Officer.

According to the EPA, between 1,300 and 1,500 people die each year from heat-related causes nationwide. Based on available research and data, human rights defenders believe that about half of these people are homeless. People with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, are at increased risk of heat-related illness, and people who do not live in shelters are more likely to have chronic conditions, which increases the risk of heat-related illness or death.

Compared to other cities, Denver has the third highest “urban heat island” effect. Urban heat islands occur on paved areas where there is no green space such as trees and grass. Compared to the rest of the city, Denver’s urban heat islands are 4.9 degrees warmer. Tent camps for those left homeless continue to pop up across the city in urban heat islands, adding to the concern of extreme heat exposure.

Denver still needs a coordinated response

Denver Heat

Photo courtesy of the Colorado Homeless Coalition on Facebook

Data provided by Denver Health shows that between May 1 and August 2 of this year, 109 people visited their emergency room due to heat exposure and/or dehydration. Seven patients remained homeless, 6.4% of the total group. Given that homeless people are less likely to seek professional health care for financial and safety reasons, advocates speculate that the number of homeless people experiencing emergencies is much higher.

However, exposure to heat does not only cause one-time emergencies. Because it exacerbates pre-existing conditions, people experiencing homelessness may experience worsening physical health symptoms and generally lack access to adequate health care.

“Homeless people are at increased risk of environmental health emergencies. They may not have readily available access to keep cool inside, mental and behavioral disorders are more common in this population, and access to drinking water may be limited,” Dr McLaren said.

Currently, there are few proactive solutions to protect Denver’s homeless population from extreme heat. Until recently, the harsh cold winter weather was the main focus of the city and public organizations. Now, human rights activists and city officials involved in public health and homeless support programs are beginning to understand that heat waves are here to stay and require large-scale action. To begin this summer, the city opened 10 cooling centers in city recreation centers and libraries open to the public.

“Exposure to extremely high ambient temperatures is dangerous for many reasons. The body’s ability to regulate temperature can be compromised, leading to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, both of which require immediate attention,” said Dr McLaren.

Denver is home to several nonprofit organizations that work year-round to support and advocate for the homeless community. You can learn more about their work:

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