Plan in works to help homeless survive heat

William Hermann The Arizona Republic Apr. 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Last summer, 32 people, most of them homeless, died of the heat that gripped the Valley. Authorities now are making plans to see there is no repeat of that tragedy.

The National Weather Service is projecting a typically hot Arizona summer, with about 90 days of temperatures above 100 degrees and 10 or more days above 110. Less cooling rainfall than usual also is projected.

Connie Guzman, 30, who has five children, is "unbelievably grateful" to have found space in a new shelter.

"When you are on the street with your children and worrying about them, it's very, very bad," she said. "When it gets hot like it does here, then it's just terrible. It's dangerous."

Last year, dangerous weather conditions, broiling days accompanied by baking nights, found officials unprepared to help the many people who had no chance of relief from the terrible heat.

Now with a deadly summer behind them and a hot summer coming fast, Maricopa County and municipal officials are making sure they are ready. They intend to create havens from the heat, provide water and send outreach teams to find the homeless and provide medical care.

County and city personnel who already are out and about in the Valley will be used to find and help the homeless in need. The county and municipalities are identifying existing buildings to use as shelters. Stockpiles of water will be distributed. And the faith community is being enlisted to provide volunteer helpers and shelters.

The county is taking the lead and coordinating efforts among cities and agencies.

Warren Leek, who heads the county's Department of Emergency Management, said the protocols will be activated if it gets an excessive heat advisory from the Weather Service.

"We will be paged and get each department moving," Leek said.

Tony Haffer, a meteorologist with the Weather Service's Phoenix office, explained that a heat advisory is issued when there is a combination of high temperature, high humidity and the likelihood that evening temperatures will remain above 90 degrees.

"The body needs time to recover from being hot," Haffer said. "When the evening low stays in the 90s, people can't recover. Heat exhaustion, even death, can be the result."

Working together

Should an advisory be issued, here are some of the efforts county departments will put into place.

The Departments of Public Works and Transportation will set up canopies to provide shade and establish hydration centers where people can cool off and get bottles of water for free.

The Human Services Department will use the vans that deliver meals to pick up homeless people and take them to shelters.

The Public Health Department will send outreach teams countywide to find people in need and get them to a shelter or hospital, if necessary.

The Facilities Management Department will set up shelter services in shaded parking garages.

The Animal Care & Control department will care for the pets of homeless people who can't take the animals into a shelter.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office will provide security at all the sites.

The county's efforts will be complemented by municipal efforts Valley-wide.

Moises Gallegos, deputy director of the Phoenix Human Services Department, said a city team has been working with county officials for weeks.

"We're discussing which city buildings we could keep open longer to provide shelter from the heat," Gallegos said, "and we're working with the fire and police departments, as well."

Gallegos said the fact that fire and police personnel see the homeless every day while going about the city makes them vital to efforts. They will identify people who need help and get them to a shelter or a hospital.

So far, 26 churches have signed on to offer shelter and assistance, Gallegos said.

Another major change this year is the existence the new Human Services Campus at 1075 W. Jackson St. in Phoenix. The campus, which opened last fall, was built, at a cost of $21 million, for the specific purpose of serving the homeless.

Central Arizona Shelter Services' homeless shelter is a part of the campus, and Director Mark Holleran said the site will "finally provide a comprehensive, 24/7 option when it comes to dealing with the heat."

The campus has sleeping quarters for 400 and houses the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall and the Day Resource Center.

"All that new space means we can, in some fashion, shelter as many as 1,000 people from the heat," Holleran said.

"We couldn't do anything close to that before; this is a huge step forward for the community."

But the campus doesn't have sleeping quarters for families, so Holleran has been working with Darlene Newsom at United Methodist Outreach Ministries to fill that need. That organization already operates a family shelter, the New Day Center, at 32nd and Van Buren streets where they serve about 100 families a night.

Last week, the ministries opened a new shelter in an older downtown building at 10th Avenue and Jefferson Street with room for about 100 people.

Ebony Lewis, 26, who has four little girls ages 5, 4, 3 and 2, said she was thankful to have found a space in the new shelter.

Lewis said the prospect of being on the streets with her children is bad enough, but the thought of being on the streets in the summer heat is awful.

"I can't even imagine that," she said. "I'd be terrified."

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