Turning Up The Heat On The Homeless

July 30, 2011

By Sean Collins-Smith, Ashley Sabin and Amy Vu

Douse yourself with water. Don’t drink soda. Stay in the shade.

For Kenny, a homeless Richmonder who frequents Monroe Park, these rules are crucial to surviving the triple-digit temperatures that have scorched the area during the month of July.

“The coolest place I can find is Monroe Park,” he said. “You got to stay in the shade.”

Shade is one of the few places the homeless can go to find solace in the summer, but in light of the record-setting heat, various organizations are doing their part to give the homeless more options.

Click here to see a slideshow with interviews of local homeless people in Richmond 

Powhatan Community Church volunteered one Saturday morning, bringing food and water on a day when the heat index reached the upper 90’s. It was the group’s first effort at Monroe Park.

“We packed up 200 lunches last night,” said Laura Koelzer, who was out volunteering with the church. “We brought them out to feed the homeless and we’re also playing games, trying to minister to them a little bit.”

According to Koelzer, all the bag lunches were scooped up in half an hour, and she vowed that they would be back to help again.

“Our church just feels the need to be out in the community to help,” she said.

Kenny’s friend David, who is also homeless, is thankful for their efforts.

“It’s miserable when it’s hot,” David said. “On Saturdays and Sundays, we have a lot of organizations that bring food and they bring out a lot of bottled water.”

Some cities, including Richmond, are designating certain areas as cooling centers to provide temporary relief from the sweltering heat. Richmond city’s sole cooling center is located on the first floor of the Department of Social Services at 900 E. Marshall St., where the doors are open from noon to 5 p.m. on the hottest days of the summer. Rhonda Robinson, an employee who oversees the operation, purchases more than 1,400 bottles of water – kept cool by 250 pounds of ice – to keep the visitors, some of whom are homeless, cool and hydrated.

Such a large amount might seem superfluous, but the recent temperatures have made it a necessity. According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center, temperatures hit 105 degrees on July 25, matching an 81 year record. That brutal heat can be extremely detrimental to the health of the homeless, says Bon Air Baptist Outreach Director Valerie Carter, who has coordinated several relief efforts for homeless people in and around the Richmond area.

“The homeless do not have health care, so their needs aren’t met a lot of the time,” Carter said. “Places that have A.C. don’t allow loitering, and the heat’s just not good, just like the cold’s not good in the winter.”

For those who regularly panhandle up and down the streets of Richmond, those cooler temperatures might feel like a Godsend. According to Kenny, the high temperatures are especially taxing when he’s on the sidewalks and the medians.

“You’re in the bright sunlight, and it will just knock you out,” Kenny said. “I’ve been out there for six hours before in the sun. It ain’t even toasty – it’s downright burning,” he said.

David agrees. He even goes so far as to schedule his day around the heat, taking advantage of each situation he’s presented with.

“I have a lot of appointments and I go to my appointments early and leave late so I can sit in the air conditioning,” he said.

He hopes that more shelters will open up in the future, but he’s not optimistic about the prospects.

“It’s hard to open up a shelter, with the government the way it is and the funding,” he said. “You’re cutting back so much that the homeless is going to be one of the first things they start cutting.  So I mean there’s really not a lot to be done.”