Denver, CO

Homeless bear the brunt of climate change’s wrath

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) From floods and wildfires to miserably hot days, climate change is killing people experiencing homelessness.

People experiencing homelessness bear the brunt of nature’s wrath. Many stay outdoors around the clock because they have nowhere to go.

That means they inhale polluted air and endure sweltering temperatures. They experience baseball-sized hail and swirling dust storms. Many people experiencing homelessness have chronic health conditions and are susceptible to illness.

Dirt gets into the mouths of the unhoused during dust storms. On top of that, people experiencing homelessness have difficulty finding water to drink.

Study: Homeless people die early

Climate change creates a dangerous situation for those living outside. Studies show that homeless people don’t live as long as the national average. A study in the medical journal PLOS One showed that women die 17 years earlier when experiencing homelessness than the national average. Men die more than 20 years sooner.

Colorado Coalition for the Homeless hosted an online seminar last week on the intersecting paths of climate change and homelessness. A panel of experts discussed the impacts of climate change on the unhoused.

Homeless lack gear for outdoor living

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Saluja Siwakoti is a housing policy fellow at the Coalition. Siwakoti said that not only do people experiencing homelessness risk exposure to the elements, but they are also the least prepared. They often lack coats to stay warm or a tarp to keep dry.

Siwakoti said the unhoused have up to a 70 percent higher rate of cardiovascular disease. The heat can be deadly for those with heart conditions.

More than 4,000 people don’t have homes in Denver, according to the latest Point in Time survey for 2021. Black people experience homeless at four times the rate of the national average, Siwakoti said. For Indigenous people, it’s a six-fold representation.

Homeless people often walk all day, going from feeding site to feeding site and trying to access other services. Water fountains in buildings and parks often don’t work. Finding water can be a challenge, and many suffer dehydration, Siwakoti said.

Why it’s so hot in central Denver

The weather only is going to become more extreme, the panelists said. In July 2021, the Denver metro area temperature peaked five degrees higher than the surrounding areas. Like many urban areas, Denver gets a strong heat island effect. In fact, Denver ranks third in the nation for the phenomenon.

With heat islands, the temperature warms up due to all the paved areas radiating heat. Urban spaces can become up to 20 degrees hotter than other places.

Siwakoti said climate change also could contribute to global disease. As the arctic warms, there is greater risk for spillover of infections from animals to people.

During the pandemic, everything became worse for people experiencing homelessness. Mental health services became scarce, the few businesses and public buildings with open public restrooms closed, and access to water became even more difficult.

‘Environmental racism’

The panel discussed “environmental racism.” An example of it is locating factories that emit toxic fumes in poor neighborhoods that have large numbers of people of color. The residents of that neighborhood must inhale that pollution.

Siwakoti said the Globeville-Elyria-Swanson neighborhood, historically redlined and with the highest poverty rate in Denver, contains many businesses that pose environmental health problems. Pollution from these businesses could put residents at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. “Housing is a predeterminant of health,” Siwakoti said.

Another example of environmental racism is placing people of color in dangerous jobs. Gardeners, for instance, must inhale pollution all day. On Aug. 7, 2021, Denver had the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality index in the world from California’s Dixie Fires.

Gardeners breathe dirty air all day

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“My eyes felt stuffy and red,” a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless client said. Coalition representatives shared his story during the presentation. “I work in gardening. This was not my first time having to be outside experiencing a wildfire, but it was really hard to adjust being outside this time.”

Jesse, as the Coalition identified him, emphasized, “This is climate change, and it must be addressed before it wipes out humanity. I’m thankful I am not homeless right now.”

The interplay of climate change and homelessness isn’t studied much, Siwakoti said, so there aren’t many specific solutions for the problems it causes. She said more data about people experiencing homelessness and climate change as a cause and effect needs to be collected.

Lack of phone means homeless unable to receive alerts

Ean Tafoya, co-chair of the Colorado Environmental Justice Action Taskforce and Colorado director of Green Latinos, said many people experiencing homelessness don’t have identification. It has been lost or stolen. They can’t access services without identification. That’s a public health hazard during times of pandemic or other disasters.

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Local governments need to plan for disasters such as COVID-19 and how they impact people experiencing homelessness, the panelists said. Tafoya said many people experiencing homelessness do not have a cell phone or a way to charge one. That means they won’t get text alerts during times of disaster.

Tafoya said people experiencing homelessness in rural areas especially lack resources. “In times of crisis, they will not have access to resources in a meaningful way.”

Water helps quench the parched

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Tafoya passes out water on Sundays to Denverites experiencing homelessness. He does it with a truck and a budget of $10,000. His group is called Headwaters Protectors. Volunteers are welcome. Headwaters Protectors may give out 400 gallons of water per week in the summer.

“It’s not much different from what you see happening to folks at the border,” Tafoya said. He said the stories he has heard on the street make him believe homelessness could happen to anyone.

“We need to change policies to a more compassionate place, a more therapeutic place,” Tafoya said.

He said the state provides showers and sanitation to visitors in mountain parks but not to people experiencing homelessness.

More cooling centers needed

Sabrina Pacha, director of Healthy Air and Water Colorado, said air pollution is killing millions and millions of people worldwide.

Denver had 20 more extreme heat days in 2020 than in 2017, Pacha said. Hot days affect the elderly even more than most people. A quarter of Denver’s unhoused population is over 55, she said.

Pacha said cooling centers must be made available for people experiencing homelessness. “Outreach workers need to let people experiencing homelessness know where they can cool off and provide transportation to the center.”

But without house keys, those living on Denver’s streets remain exposed to increasingly wild weather and the problems it creates, the panelists agreed. “Getting people into homes really is the only way we’re going to protect unhoused folks from the climate change crisis,” Pacha said.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

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