Michael Felder, 62, was an organizer with the Fund for Empowerment, advocating for unhoused people in Phoenix, Arizona. In August 2022, he was in a large outdoor area downtown known as “the Zone,” where many unhoused residents have been fighting against city clearances that leave them with nowhere to go.
“He had spent many years on the streets,” Elizabeth Venable, Fund for Empowerment’s cofounder, told Filter. “That particular day, I had got him a new tent, a cooler and about 60 Gatorades. It was a very hot night. He died on the sidewalks around the Zone. I only was able to know this because I called his cell phone the next morning and a girl picked up and she told me, ‘I’m so sorry, he’s dead.’”
Felder’s death galvanized the community. “What we did after that was we all wore shirts with Michael on it, and we all went into City Council,” Venable said. “And we drug them through the ropes, we really held their feet to the fire for creating this situation where people are going to die because of the lack of facilities.”
Michael Felder in August 2022
This year, the deadly heat is even worse, and the facilities are still inadequate. A heat dome centered on the Southwest continues to inflict extreme temperatures on over 110 million people across the United States. Areas of states including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah are facing the most severe heat this week, according to The New York Times. By publication time, Phoenix had faced a record-equaling 18 consecutive days above 110F. Merely being outside for too long puts you at risk of illness and death.
In 2022, Maricopa County counted 425 heat-associated deaths. Over 40 percent of these—178 people—were among the unhoused population.
The scientific consensus is clear that climate change, caused by human activity and carbon emissions, is driving more extreme heat events—which are currently also being experienced in Southern Europe and China.
“Take the heat seriously and avoid time outdoors,” the National Weather Service advised. “Temperatures will reach levels that pose a health risk and are potentially deadly to anyone without effective cooling and/or adequate hydration. Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the US.”
But for many unhoused people, living on the streets or in their cars, “effective cooling” is simply not available. As outlets report heat-related harms to unhoused people and efforts to offer cooling centers in Arizona, the death toll from last year gives a frightening indication of the stakes.
In 2022, Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, counted 425 heat-associated deaths. Over 40 percent of these—178 people—were among the unhoused population. The proportion of unhoused people dying in relation to extreme heat has been climbing since 2015. And in 2023, the county has already confirmed 12 lives lost due to heat—including six unhoused people.
The county’s demographic data indicate that people over 50, men, and Black and Indigenous residents are all disproportionately at risk.
“Part of the problem is we don’t have low-barrier shelters. It almost ensures people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol will have greater fatalities from the heat.”
The county’s breakdown also states that “Over half of all heat-associated deaths involved drug use [including alcohol]”—of which 54 percent were among people experiencing homelessness. Statistics attributing deaths to drugs are often highly questionable, but the county claims that “Drug use was a primary cause of death in more than 80 percent of heat-associated deaths involving drug use.”
Some drug use may exacerbate effects of extreme heat, such as dehydration. But shelters’ “zero tolerance” policies, discriminating against people who use drugs, are a major factor.
“Part of the problem is we don’t have low-barrier shelters which would enable someone, not to bring drugs or alcohol inside, but say they had one or two beers, they are able to come in and sleep,” Venable said. “Without those shelters, it almost ensures people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol will have greater fatalities from the heat.”
The city of Phoenix is meanwhile facing legal challenges over the Zone, as Filter has reported. In August 2022, downtown business owners sued the city in an attempt to have unhoused residents evicted; in March 2023, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, describing the Zone as a “public nuisance.” But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also successfully sued, in a federal court, to protect the constitutional rights of unhoused people; in November, a judge ordered the city not to take any actions that harm unhoused people.
Despite the conflicting court orders, Phoenix has since taken further steps to clear the Zone, according to NPR. It is slowly going “block by block,” and has removed an estimated 120 people so far. The city claims that everyone who wants a shelter bed will get one, but advocates have called this misleading.
“We don’t believe there are any safe outdoor spaces in these temperatures.”
At the same time, Phoenix is planning to build a “safe outdoor space,” where residents will get a 12-by-12-foot space to pitch a tent. On June 28, the City Council voted to purchase four acres of land from the state, where it says it will provide security and a daytime indoor cooling station. It plans to have it ready by September 1.
Venable and other advocates aren’t impressed. “We don’t believe there are any safe outdoor spaces in these temperatures,” she said. “We believe it’s the city’s responsibility to have people either in meaningful and personally evaluated shelter—that matches individuals’ needs—or long-term housing.”
The Maricopa County Association of Governments has also reopened a temporary Heat Relief Network, running May 1 to September 30. The partnership of local governments, nonprofits, businesses and religious organizations offers free sites where people can shelter, cool down, and get water, food or other supplies. Other local resources include city volunteers calling residents to check up on them, and a 211 hotline offering free rides to cooling centers.
But it’s not enough. Most facilities close in the evening, leaving people unsheltered from heat at night. There is reportedly only one cooling center open 24 hours, at the Brian Garcia Welcome Center that’s part of the Human Services Campus downtown. It doesn’t have enough space for everyone, and doesn’t allow people to sleep there.
“The ambient temperature remains similar during the evening as during the day,” Venable said. “It takes a long time for it to cool down, and even then it’s still above body temperature and you can have negative effects. Essentially, in every other area of the city outside the Zone, it makes people unable to receive these services at night because there are zero other facilities.”
Temporary cooling centers, in Phoenix and other vulnerable areas, will never be a substitute for permanent housing.
Image of July 18 forecast via National Weather Service
Photograph of Michael Felder courtesy of Elizabeth Venable