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Joel John Roberts Headshot

The Heat Is on Homeless Persons

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It is that time of the year in this country when air conditioners are on full blast and plastic water bottles are a personal necessity.

The National Weather Service is warning Americans to cool down during an extreme heat wave sweeping most of the southeastern part of this country with heat indices likely ranging from 105 to 115 degrees. The comedic television weatherman doesn't need to warn us about the scorching weather; all we have to do is walk outside.

But for those of us who are housed, a flip of the air conditioner switch or a swig of a bottle of water will resolve our uncomfortable state. The best case scenario is a ditch day from work, hanging out at the beach or the lake. The worst case scenario is a sweat stain under our arms or perspiration flowing from our foreheads. Inconvenient, but not disastrous.

Unless you are one of the unlucky homeless Americans stuck on the streets in a severe heat wave. With more and more communities embracing a law enforcement approach to homelessness, a homeless American cannot always lie down under a shaded tree in a park to hide from the searing sun, or cannot simply walk into a convenience store to buy a bottle of water.

Heat waves and homelessness are not congruent. In fact, hot weather for those of us who are housed is uncomfortable, but the same conditions can be deadly for those without a home.

In the summer months when I was young, I would hang out on the sands of the beach or at a friend's pool when the temperatures peaked. My friends and I actually enjoyed the sizzling summers.

It is hard to imagine a hot summer becoming deadly. But for homeless Americans, death by heat waves is a reality.

Sitting out in the sun for long periods of time creates heat exhaustion, with symptoms of dizziness, headache and fainting. For a homeless person with such indicators, we simple think they are inebriated or high. This turns into a heat stroke that creates dry skin, body temperatures higher than 103 degrees, confusion and then unconsciousness. Again, a homeless man lying on the sidewalk unconscious is not a strange sight.

And then death.

In hot times like these, I wonder about John, an older American with a few tours of battle under his belt, who ended up disabled and homeless. He is afraid to get help from the Veterans Administration since he feels they betrayed him years ago. He struggles with the ghosts of war lingering in his consciousness. And he sits out in the open, under the sun for days at a time.

I don't see a water bottle next to him, and I see the symptoms of heat stroke overwhelming his person. Some of the homeless caregivers give him water, and beg him to come into a cooled shelter. He simply ignores their pleas.

I wonder if John will be the next victim of a summer of blistering heat.

In some parts of this country, shelters are opening up their air-conditioned respites and passing out bottles of water. In summers past, cities would set up cooling centers for people stuck on the streets. These compassionate acts certainly are saving lives.

But the scorching heat of summer should really be turned toward an American society that allows its citizens to not only live in squalid conditions on our streets, but also allows them to die in the heat. Perhaps we should turn off the air conditioners of this country's policy makers, until they could muster the courage to house every American.

Wait, these leaders are still fighting over whether this country's debt limit should be raised.