Heat and Homelessness: Not a Good Combination

A photo of a squirrel resting in a tree on a hot day.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Joachim Dobler.

When I first came here in D.C. a few weeks ago, I had trouble breathing. The combination of heat and humidity produced the sensation of being completely submerged underwater. Uncomfortable and beginning to panic, I estimated how much it would cost to buy a one-way ticket back home. A summer transplant from Maine, with its abundance of forests, lakes and cool nights, I have managed for most of my life to avoid the extreme heat. Even on the hottest of days, I have always been able to go for an afternoon run.  

Upon my arrival in the District, however, it became clear that if I was even going to do so much as leave the house, I would need to develop a strategy for dealing with the smothering heat of the city. After allowing some time for my body to adapt to the weather and acquiring some light, loose-fitting clothing, I began to feel less like a pot of boiling water and more like a human being. I moved my daily runs to 6 a.m., avoided the peak sun hours (11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), and researched simple, resourceful ways to stay cool. I realized that with nearly all of my day spent in an airconditioned home or office, I have it pretty easy.  

Whether you spend all or none of your time out of the direct heat, you can benefit from understanding the health risks and knowing what to do to stay safe. However dramatic my response to the D.C. climate may have been, the dangers of exposure to high heat are all too real.  

Apart from making us feel tired, sweaty and irritable, prolonged exposure to the heat can be extremely serious. When we sweat profusely, we lose water faster than we can replace it, leaving our bodies dehydrated and unable to function optimally. Sweat also contains minerals such as sodium and potassium, as well as lactate, urea and a few other trace elements.  

The minerals found in sweat are referred to as electrolytes, which are crucial to maintaining blood pH, keeping the body properly hydrated and regulating nerve and muscle function. We need electrolytes as badly as we need water to stay alive. When too much water and electrolytes are lost due to heat exposure, our risk for heat related illnesses increases.  

There are three main categories of heat-related illnesses: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Though unpleasant, heat cramps and exhaustion can be treated easily by resting in a cool, shady place and drinking plenty of fluids. Alcohol and caffeine, which can be dehydrating, should be avoided. Applying cold compresses or even a damp towel can provide immediate relief and comfort. When left untreated, however, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, the most serious heat-related illness. During heatstroke, the brain loses its ability to regulate body temperature. An individual suffering from heatstroke will have stopped sweating and will be reddish and warm to the touch. This condition is a medical emergency that can result in death and 911 should be contacted as quickly as possible. Older adults, young children and overweight individuals are those most at risk, but we are all susceptible to experiencing a heat illness each time we step outside.  

It is relatively easy to prevent heat illness if you have access to a fan, cold beverages and shade, but it’s far more difficult to stay cool and healthy if you are one of more than 6,500 homeless persons living in D.C. The District will be implementing a Street Showers program at various sites around the city as well as opening four Cooling Centers, but these will only be open from 12 to 6 p.m. when the temperature reaches 95 degrees or higher. While these measures are valuable, homeless individuals are left without a place to stay cool on all of those days when the temperature is in the low 90s and the air is thick with moisture, which are days when it is still very easy to come down with a heat-related illness. 

What can you do to help?  

No one can completely avoid the summer heat, but by being smart we can help each other out and avoid dangerous risks to our health. 

  • One of the biggest and most immediate ways to provide relief is to hand out frozen water bottles or, even better, frozen sports drinks. These can be used for hydration as well as general cooling. 
  • Bandanas, hats and battery-operated personal fans are also helpful donations. If you are homeless or unable to afford cooling measures like air-conditioning, there are a few things you can do to stay safe and comfortable. 
  • Get out of the sun, whether that means finding a shady park, a shopping mall or a big-box retail store. 
  • For a few dollars, you can access a public pool where you’ll find shade, cool water and a shower. 
  • Try to wear lightweight, light-colored clothing that will reflect the sun’s rays, and protect your face and eyes with a wide brimmed hat. 
  • Make sure to drink plenty of water so you can help your body cool itself the natural way and replace lost electrolytes through sports drinks, fruits and salty snacks. 

Issues |Health, Physical

Region |Washington DC

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