Homeless advocates work to keep community cool, hydrated and safe during Phoenix heat wave

The latest weather forecast has left advocates for the homeless scrambling to help them survive the brutal temperatures.

Last summer, dozens died in Maricopa County from heat-related causes, and they're working hard to make sure it doesn't happen again this summer.

Circle the City estimates there are a little under 1,500 people living in tents in downtown Phoenix and says this has been a daily battle, especially during the triple digits we are now starting to feel.

Maricopa County heat deaths, so far, stand at 7 caused directly by the heat, 6 related to the heat and a total of 92 deaths under investigation. Last year at this time, there were 9 deaths confirmed by the heat and 75 under investigation.

With a 35% rise in homelessness in the area in the last two years, Marty Hames with Circle the City says a significant number of those deaths are homeless people.

"We're hearing about people found dead inside their tents. It's just such a myriad of that. Usually, we see the encampment kind of thin out during the summer with people going to cooler areas. We're not seeing that this summer. We're seeing those numbers still stay high in the encampments," Hames says.

Robert Robinson can attest to that.

He became homeless and was living out on the streets back in March before the temperatures were even nearing 100. He deals with cellulitis and says it was unbearable being outside.

It wasn't until he got inside the clinic for treatment that he is finally able to start recovering.

"With cellulitis, my feet were swollen to the point where no shoes would fit, then having to walk around barefoot on the streets was just causing all kinds of issues with my blistering. It was blistering heat literally. The streets are just absolutely detrimental to anyone's health," Robinson said.

Charles Shaw is 72 and is retired as a bus driver on a fixed income. He had his finances in order until his rent rose from $933 to $1,133 a month.

With a rise in costs on just about everything else, he could no longer make ends meet. He became homeless, nervous he might end up with nowhere to go in this Arizona heat.

"I had trouble paying my rent, and I was evicted," he said. "I knew I couldn't pay the rent and I knew I would have to move and the only place I had to go was to a homeless shelter."

Circle the City says this is absolutely a life or death situation and that unhoused people are 200 to 300% more likely to face heat-related illnesses than the average person.

"During the summer, it’s pretty hard to find a place at night that’s cool enough to sleep without the police running you off," said Chris Medlock, a homeless Phoenix man known on the streets as "T-Bone" who carries everything he owns in a small backpack and often beds down in a park or a nearby desert preserve to avoid the crowds.

SEE ALSO: 'City of a Thousand': Downtown Phoenix's tent city explodes at alarming rate

"If a kind soul could just offer a place on their couch indoors maybe more people would live," Medlock said in a dining room where homeless people can get some shade and a free meal.

Excessive heat causes more weather-related deaths in the United States than hurricanes, flooding and tornadoes combined. Around the country, heat contributes to some 1,500 deaths annually, and advocates estimate about half of those people are homeless.

ALSO: Excessive Heat Warning issued for 6 Arizona counties on Monday

Temperatures are rising nearly everywhere because of global warming, combining with brutal drought in some places to create more intense, frequent and longer heat waves. The past few summers have been some of the hottest on record.

Just in the county that includes Phoenix, at least 130 homeless people were among the 339 individuals who died from heat-associated causes in 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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More information on homeless resources in Arizona can be found here.

Heat Relief Network: https://hrn.azmag.gov/