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Summer Heat Challenges the Homeless

Tony Swartz, via Flickr/Creative Commons

On the afternoon of July 11, the high in Knoxville hit 91 degrees. A small crowd gathered inside Volunteer Ministry Center on Broadway, taking refuge from the beating sun outside. Getting inside, in the air conditioning, is more than just a means for comfort. It can be vital for the people served by non-profits such as VMC. One of them is Steve. He says finding drinking water is crucial.

“It’s kinda rough,” he says. “If you don't have the right clothing, you could dehydrate very fast. There’s not too many places, I mean around here you can get water to hydrate but usually it's hard to find that.”

Peggy uses VMC’s resource center.

“I've never really been a Gatorade drinker, but I have found a favorite flavor now,” she tells WUOT’s Sophie Grossrode. “A lot of people don't want to drink water but you know what, that's one of the things that you really need in this kind of weather.”

For most Americans, summer is a season of vacations and swimming pools. But for many of the 8,700 homeless persons the Department of Housing and Urban Development counted in Tennessee in 2016, summer becomes a time of added struggle and health hazards.

For those considered “street homeless,” exposure to the elements is a round-the-clock concern.

“If they are not involved in a program, they could be literally spending from seven o’clock till about 4 [or] 4:30 in the afternoon out on the streets,” says Gabriel Cline, clinical services director at Volunteer Ministry Center.

If left unchecked, dehydration can lead to heatstroke. Substance abuse or preexisting medical conditions can make people even more vulnerable.

“There's a lot of different challenges,” Peggy says. “The one that I stay most concerned with is my breathing. The humidity here has been crazy. A lot of times when it gets to 85, 90 degrees, it's very, very hard for me to breathe…it's hard to explain how bad it is and what it can become.”

Cline says a program called White Flag is designed to help nonprofit agencies, including VMC, Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the Salvation Army, recognize hot weather and take action to help the homeless.

“[White Flag] is a program that provides inside shelter during extreme weather,” Cline says. “When the temperatures get up to 90 or above we literally hang out a white flag and folks can come inside and just be inside in shelter and get water even if they're not a member of our program.”

Highs in Knoxville have hit 90 degrees or above more than a dozen times this month. Regardless of the thermometer reading, Steve says his summers revolve around finding shelter, finding water and cooling off whenever he can.

“If it's hot I’ll get on the bus or the trolley or go to library or go to the park or somewhere there's water you can cool down, but mostly when it's hot I try to stay around this area ‘cause I know I can come in out of the heat. As far as dealing with the temperatures and being homeless it's...”

Steve pauses and sighs.

“I wouldn't wish it on anybody. It can be really rough sometimes.”

 This story was researched, reported and produced by WUOT's news intern, Sophie Grosserode.