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In Phoenix, Homeless Battle Summer Heat

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In Phoenix, Homeless Battle Summer Heat

Health Care

In Phoenix, Homeless Battle Summer Heat

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

In Phoenix, heat's a fact of life. This weekend, it's awful. Today's high, 111 degrees. Tomorrow, the prediction is 114. That's just two degrees short of the all-time record. Now, this weather is tough on people who air condition their homes. But for those who live on the streets, it can be deadly.

From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd has our story.

PETER O'DOWD: It's not even lunchtime, and already a thermometer reads 104 degrees. A few dozen people wait outside this center for the homeless in downtown Phoenix, vying for every scrap of shade on the lot. As one visitor put it, this city is hotter than three hells.

Mr. HERMAN SHEFFIELD(ph): It can be quite disturbing, especially if you don't have some kind of living quarters.

O'DOWD: Herman Sheffield is a big man with a big smile. He holds a bottle of water in his hand and says each night before he goes to sleep outside, he prays to God for relief.

Mr. SHEFFIELD: The good Lord will be kind of like, watching over me. Because about 10 or 11 o'clock, it gets a little breezy. We get a little wind.

O'DOWD: In this weather, every blessing counts. Those who live in it say the heat 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.

Mr. KEVIN WALTON(ph): Out here, it's warm basically.

O'DOWD: Kevin Walton 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.

Mr. WALTON: Their body is going to shut down by itself sometimes, like, you know what, this is enough. Sit down, you're out. You get back up, but you're in the same thing. You know, you're still too hot. I mean, 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.

O'DOWD: It's not unusual every summer for dozens of people to die from heat exposure in the Phoenix area. In 2002, one of the hottest years of the last decade, more than 100 perished in the sun.

Just last week, Richard Chamberlain(ph) says he saw a man who died on the street, likely the third heat-related death of this summer.

Mr. RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN: When I walked out there seeing him foaming at his mouth, his chest wasn't rising or falling. I knew right away that he had passed on. So that's the reality of being homeless, you know? You subject it to this.

O'DOWD: Outreach workers say the man was wearing several layers of winter clothing when he died. It's a common problem for the homeless who are mentally ill, according to 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.

Mr. KEN CURRY (Program Director, Southwest Behavioral Health Services): If you're 100 percent healthy, you are at risk. The ones who are less than optimal health are really at risk.

O'DOWD: Some of the homeless here say they're constantly haunted by fears of dying outside. For others, like Tallie McCoy(ph) who juggled illness and insects and blinding heat on the streets for six months, death seemed better than what she was enduring.

Ms. TALLIE McCOY: You become fearless. Death is like - that's a pleasure. You know what I'm saying? It's like, okay, come on. I welcome death.

O'DOWD: Back outside, Herman Sheffield, the man with a 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.

Mr. SHEFFIELD: Hopefully, I should be going by the 1st.

O'DOWD: So as soon as you get that check, you're heading up at cooler climates?

Mr. SHEFFIELD: (Unintelligible) and getting out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I'm going plane style.

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

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

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