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Florida’s Record Heat Becomes Great Risk for Unsheltered Residents

Heat indexes in Orlando have surpassed 100 degrees 32 times so far this year, making this year especially dangerous for unhoused residents. There has been a 75 percent increase in unsheltered people in Central Florida since 2019.

Michele Davis knows all about the oppressive July heat, on record as the hottest in Central Florida’s history.

Davis sleeps on the streets of Parramore, amid a growing population of unsheltered people. She’s been unhoused for four months for the first time in her life. She came to Orlando with her fiancé to be near his mother who has health issues.

“It’s miserable,” said Davis, 50. “When that sun starts beaming, it’s difficult for you to lay down because the sun is right on you. And the ground is hot.”

This summer, the streets are more treacherous than normal, with Florida off to its hottest start of the year in history. In July, temperatures averaged 85 degrees. Heat indexes in Orlando have surpassed 100 degrees 32 times so far this year, and have been at least 103 degrees 15 times, said Will Ulrich, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

The extreme summer – and the threat that climate change could fuel hotter temperatures for years to come – has regional leaders considering forming hot-weather plans to better support vulnerable groups like the unsheltered.

“That’s something the community really needs to explore,” said Martha Are, CEO of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida. “We’re in an unprecedented situation where we need to consider options.”

The region has winter-weather plans when temperatures dip below 40 degrees, which includes opening overnight shelters. Plans are also put in motion ahead of an arrival of a hurricane or tropical storm, to keep people out of dangerous winds and torrential rains.

Unlike those weather events, the hottest times of the day come during normal business hours when public buildings, shopping centers and other cool spaces are open to provide potential respite.

In the meantime, homeless services providers across the area are opening their doors and allowing people into air conditioning during the day, fundraising to put together cooling kits to distribute and adjusting protocols to keep people cool.

At the Christian Service Center, which sits next to Exploria Stadium at Ground Zero for homelessness in Central Florida, people are welcomed in daily for meals in the air conditioning. The facility has new white tents to help people stay out of the sun, and when the heat index reaches 103, a second air-conditioned space is opened to keep people cool with a television, ice and water.

Eric Gray, the CEO of the nonprofit, said he and his staff began taking a closer look at the needs of their clients in the summertime about three years ago when the daily visits by the Orlando Fire Department began to multiply.

“We weren’t seeing heat stroke, we weren’t seeing people sweating and passing out…we were seeing more heart attacks, diabetic shock, asthma attacks,” Gray said. “The only variable change was the heat.”

Gray said the heat index is measured in a shady area, meaning in sunny places, it feels even hotter.

Agencies like the Osceola Council on Aging, Samaritan Resource Center, HOPE partnership and others are taking similar steps of opening their doors during scorching daylight hours, Are said.

Not only are more people unsheltered in Central Florida — up 75 percent since 2019, according to the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida — but also more elderly people are sleeping on the streets as well, Are said.

That population has higher rates of chronic illnesses, and also takes medications that either must be stored at certain temperatures or can make someone vulnerable to heat illness or dehydration, Are said.

The most recent federally mandated Point-In-Time count showed 64 people age 65 and older unsheltered in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, and 146 people between 55 and 64 years old, according to the Homeless Services Network. The count is considered an undercount because of how difficult it is to find homeless encampments.

Earlier this summer, Seminole County temporarily activated its extreme weather plan, which calls for its libraries to serve as cooling centers. The plan is enacted when the heat index surpasses 108 degrees.

Even getting out of the sun for short periods can help stabilize body temperatures during a heat spike. Symptoms like nausea, dizziness and muscle cramps are indicators of heat exhaustion, said Dr. Max Baumgardner, medical director for AdventHealth’s Seminole County emergency departments.

Among all patients, AdventHealth, Central Florida’s largest hospital system, has seen a 20 percent increase in cases of heat exhaustion in its emergency rooms in May, June and July this year, said Tom Johnson, a spokesperson for the system.

Meanwhile, its Centra Care urgent care facilities have documented a 115 percent increase in heat-related illnesses over the past two weeks. It’s unclear what share of those cases are people who were unsheltered.

Homelessness in Central Florida is only expected to increase in the coming years, a product of rising rents, stagnant wages and a shortage of affordable housing. Are said rents have climbed $481 since 2019, far above what many can afford, but shelter space hasn’t increased, highlighting the need for more housing.

“What we have now is a lot of people who were living in our neighborhoods who have lost their housing just because the rents have gone up so much,” she said.

In four months on the streets, Davis said the heat is taking its toll.

She never throws away an empty water bottle, which she fills at the Christian Service Center, and often sits under tents outside of the campus near fans. She has high blood pressure and can’t stand the heat for long periods.

“I have to have air conditioning, 24/7,” she said. “If I don’t have that, I’ll pass out.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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