In Phoenix, Homeless Battle Summer Heat

Two homeless men outside of a downtown Phoenix center for the homeless. i i

One man celebrates a simple joy in the desert — water — while another tries to sleep beneath a Palo Verde tree at a downtown Phoenix center for the homeless. Peter O'Dowd for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter O'Dowd for NPR
Two homeless men outside of a downtown Phoenix center for the homeless.

One man celebrates a simple joy in the desert — water — while another tries to sleep beneath a Palo Verde tree at a downtown Phoenix center for the homeless.

Peter O'Dowd for NPR

Summers in Phoenix can be long and lethal for those who can't escape the heat.

Outside a homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix, a few dozen people are vying for every scrap of shade on the lot. It's not even lunchtime, and already a thermometer reads 104 degrees. As one visitor put it, "This city is hotter than three hells."

Herman Sheffield, a big man with a big smile, says he prays to God for relief each night before he goes to sleep outside.

"It can be quite disturbing, especially if you don't have some kind of living quarters," he says.

Those who live in the heat say it makes them irritable, disoriented and unable to eat. The constant sun, they say, is a giver of near-constant headaches. Even at night, the temperature can hover in the lower 90s.

Kevin Walton compares it to war. He lived on the streets for three months after his wife died. Before he found a job at the nearby shelter, he slept in the parking lot, waiting for a spot to open inside.

"Your body is going to shut down by itself sometimes," he explains. "You've got to have a real sense of survival when you're out here, because if you don't, then you're not going to last."

It's not unusual for dozens of people to die every summer from heat exposure in the Phoenix area. In 2002, one of the hottest years in the past decade, more than 100 perished in the Arizona sun. Richard Chamberlain, who is newly homeless, says just last week he saw a man who died on the street — likely the third heat-related death of this summer.

"When I walked out there, he was foaming at the mouth, and his chest wasn't rising or falling," he says. "So that's the reality of being homeless. You're subjected to this."

Outreach workers say the man was wearing several layers of winter clothing when he died. It's a common problem for the homeless people who are mentally ill, says Ken Curry, who runs one of the programs here. He says he often finds people dressed for a blizzard in the desert — in part, because the medication they're taking doesn't mix with the heat.

"If you're 100 percent healthy, you're at risk," he says. "If you're less than optimal health, you're really at risk."

Some of the homeless say they are constantly haunted by fears of dying outside. For others, like Tallie McKoy, who juggled illness, insects and blinding heat on the streets for six months, death seemed better than what she was enduring.

"You become fearless," she says. "Death, that's a pleasure. ... It's like, OK, I welcome death."

Sheffield, the man with the big smile, is considering his future in Phoenix. He's from Atlanta, and this weather doesn't suit him. When his disability check arrives in August, he'll head north.

"Hopefully, I'll be gone by the 1st," he says. "I'm getting out of here. I'm going plane style!"

Before Sheffield boards a plane for Reno, he must endure Phoenix in July, the sweatiest and most lethal month of the year.

Peter O'Dowd reports for KJZZ in Phoenix.

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