Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Unhoused in a heat wave: Addressing the deadly effects of Seattle's most chronic illness

Share this Post:
Photo courtesy of Malcontent News
Photo courtesy of Malcontent News

On Monday, June 28, Seattle saw its highest recorded temperature ever: 108 degrees. For three consecutive days, temperatures had climbed into the triple digits, lingering there for up to eight hours at a time.

While hundreds of Seattle-area residents were still determined to attend the weekend's highly anticipated in-person Pride events, aided by cold beverages and access to nearby indoor spaces, King County's houseless communities faced severely limited opportunities to escape the heat.

Confounding variables
Seattle and King County declared homelessness a state of emergency six years ago — and the issue has only gotten worse since.

Ours is the urban area with the third-largest population of unhoused people in the nation. Records from early 2020 are the most recent data, and they indicate that 11,751 to 13,147 people experienced some form of homelessness in King County. LQBTQ+ and BIPOC individuals comprise a large percentage this number and are subject to greater risks to their safety while unhoused.

Efforts to combat chronic homelessness have largely fallen short, though hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent. Solutions are pitched in campaign speeches, and yet the number of unhoused only increases. Therefore, some have begun to refer to the issue as an "epidemic," in the years prior to our newfound intimacy with the word "pandemic."

While no data can prove it, many advocates for the unhoused agree that in the last year, the population has only continued to grow, and that most counting methods are inaccurate anyway. What the data do show about the past year is that Seattle and King County have allowed the pandemic to exacerbate the symptoms of this chronic condition, even as they reach for future solutions.

Of those experiencing homelessness in 2020, around 47% were without shelter. Since the pandemic limited shelter capacities, outdoor encampments multiplied across the county. Public safety measures aiming to keep infection rates low, such as the shut-off of all public tap water sources and fountains, overlooked the basic needs of thousands of those living outside.

"We are following CDC guidelines," said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan regarding the protection of the homeless during the pandemic. CDC guidelines state: "If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are." Meanwhile, constant "sweeps" of public parks exposed a vicious cycle of migration forced upon the unhoused.

Among those able to remain sheltered, King County still saw three large COVID-19 outbreaks by May 2020. So while several safety measures implemented paved a path for a great number of people to avoid coronavirus infection, the unhoused were sidelined.

The dire safety concerns of this social epidemic within a viral pandemic were further intensified by the recent record-breaking heat wave. Research suggests that the risk of heat-related death for those experiencing homelessness is at least 100 to 200 times as high as the general population.

Community intervention
In a single hour in the early morning of June 26, 5,000 bottles of water, 500 sports drinks, dozens of sunscreen products, and a few hundred towels were assembled for the houseless. All it took was a small amount of outreach and foresight, according to organizer David Obelcz.

Obelcz is the chief content officer of Malcontent News and founder of the Badon Hill Group marketing firm. While leading at both companies might sound like enough for one person, Obelcz has also dedicated hundreds of hours to organizing and advocating for the unhoused.

For several years, starting in 2014, he and his wife put on a haunted house for their Kirkland neighbors, asking only for food donations in return. Since beginning this work, he has expanded to other forms of service and learned a great deal about chronic homelessness in the region.

"There is so much need under the surface that people don't see. What we need more of is job training, direct outreach with the unhomed... A lot of people know about the food bank, and they know about homelessness, but they only see the tip of the iceberg and nothing of what is going on beneath the surface," said Obelcz.

Obelcz is a self-professed "weather nerd" who first founded Malcontent News as a weather blog. He was called to action upon noticing the abnormally high temperatures in the forecast that week.

"About a week before the heatwave, I thought, this can't be possible," said Obelcz. "Heat kills. Once you get to about 120, you're getting onto the ragged edge of where humans can survive. We tickled these temperatures."

Obelcz heard that local nonprofits Hopelink Friends of Youth and Teen Feed were asking for water and sports drinks, and so he recruited help through his media platforms.

"I reached out to people in my network when I realized that the logistics were going to be more than one or two people could handle," he said.

Together, Obelcz and his crew spent all of Saturday making deliveries. They followed nonprofit allocations with direct drop-offs at Lake Washington Methodist's "safe parking lot" and then various other encampments, from SoDo to Ballard. The team transported enough for hundreds of people's heat wave needs, enough to give every person about 10-20 bottles of water.

Obelcz is a big-picture thinker as well and noted the systemic challenges for those trying to overcome homelessness, especially those of marginalized identities.

"There is a stunning number of people who are LGBTQ+ on the streets, and especially more among youth. And within the transgender community, it's hard to find work. There is so much discrimination, and a lot of people who can't find work end up on the streets."

His experience over the years has given him an insightful perspective on large-scale solutions. He sees a major lack of political will to solve the issue at its root causes, and though the City of Seattle addresses these "roots of the crisis" on its website, it has yet to make moves to diminish them.

Obelcz added, "The number one thing is we have a one-size-fits-all approach, when that does not work for everyone. A family on the run from domestic violence and a drug-afflicted person do not need the same things. Many people who are unhomed are mentally ill, and Washington is one of the worst states in the country for mental health care."

Seattle's unhoused are pushed to the periphery in several ways. Policy has yet to make a sizable impact, and no one can quite trace where the money to combat the issue is going. Meanwhile, Obelcz's quick thinking and the help of others to organize likely helped dozens survive in dire conditions.

The total number of heat-wave-related deaths in Seattle's unhoused population is unknown, though over a dozen cases are documented. Now, as the area reportedly verges on a month without rain, public water sources remain shut off, and the unhoused population continues to bear the brunt of our political shortcomings.

Our climate is only becoming more volatile, and the crisis continues to grow. Perhaps our policies need to go to more extremes as well.