© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We will broadcast special coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, starting with the RNC tonight at 8.

Extreme heat leaves few options for Missourians without housing

Daniel Boone Regional Library is one of the cooling centers available to the public in Columbia. Advocates say that the library is always willing to accept those who need a place to cool down, but can sometimes struggle to find enough space for everyone that needs assistance.
Rebecca Smith
/
KBIA
Daniel Boone Regional Library is one of the cooling centers available to the public in Columbia. Advocates say that the library is always willing to accept those who need a place to cool down, but can sometimes struggle to find enough space for everyone that needs assistance.

Temperatures in Missouri can become dangerously hot during the summer. In July 2022, the hottest July in a decade, parts of central and southern Missouri reported temperatures above 100 degrees.

Data show that climate change will continue to raise temperatures in Missouri, and experts and advocates say that people experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

When people are overexposed to heat, they can experience severe dehydration, heat stroke, heat exhaustion — or even die. Among weather-related fatalities, heat consistently accounts for the highest number of deaths. Dr. Chris Sampson, an emergency medicine physician with MU Health Care, said that there are several things people can do to protect themselves from dangerous heat exposure.

“Frequent breaks, getting out of the heat for a short period of time, getting into a cool environment, either a building, even an air conditioned car, getting in the shade,” Sampson said. “And then it’s being prepared. Again, it's making sure you've adequately hydrated before you even leave the house.”

But what happens to the people who don’t have a house, or even a place to stay? A 2017 report from the CDC states that homeless people are more likely to be impacted by heat-related illness. The report also showed that even though cooling centers are a common solution, the strategy doesn’t always account for those who aren’t aware of or can’t get to cooling centers.

“For our unhoused population, this is a risky time, especially if they're outside for prolonged periods,” Sampson said. “If they're unable to get into cool buildings, then sometimes it's just trying to find shady spots or places where the heat is not directly coming down on them.”

Project Homeless Connect, hosted at Missouri United Methodist Church, is a biannual event that is coordinated by the Boone County Basic Needs Coalition. Outreach organizations and other groups set up tables where unhoused people can come to get resources like hygiene products, cooling gaiters, narcan, boxed lunches and more.
Rebecca Smith
/
KBIA
Project Homeless Connect, hosted at Missouri United Methodist Church, is a biannual event that is coordinated by the Boone County Basic Needs Coalition. Outreach organizations and other groups set up tables where unhoused people can come to get resources like hygiene products, cooling gaiters, narcan, boxed lunches and more.


It can be a challenge for people without stable housing to find information about the hours and locations of cooling centers and to find transportation to and from the cooling centers. In Columbia, Missouri, advocates say these are just a few factors that might rule out a cooling center for someone who’s unhoused.

Darren Morton, executive director of Turning Point, poses for a picture at Project Homeless Connect on June 29, 2023. He said that many people are used to having air conditioning and don't think about people who might not have access to a place to cool off: "I think they just kind of forget what it's like to be sticky. What it's like to be sitting and just sweating," Morton said.
Rebecca Smith
/
KBIA
Darren Morton, executive director of Turning Point, poses for a picture last month at Project Homeless Connect. He said that many people are used to having air conditioning and don't think about people who might not have access to a place to cool off: "I think they just kind of forget what it's like to be sticky. What it's like to be sitting and just sweating," Morton said.

Darren Morton is the executive director for Turning Point, a day center for unhoused folks that provides a mailing address, laundry and just a place to cool down and rest. According to him, some cooling centers in the area are unwilling to let homeless people in.

“Everyone isn't opening their doors, everyone isn't allowing everybody to come in,” Morton said. “Or if they do, they got all these rules and regulations as to what it takes for you to be able to get out of the heat, you know, ‘You can't do this, can't look like this, can't smell like that.’”

And without access to cooling centers, unhoused people often have few options but to find a patch of shade and hope for the best. Cat Armbrust is the director of CoMo Mobile Aid Collective, a local nonprofit that works directly with the homeless community and meets them where they are. They host a twice weekly medical clinic at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church. Armburst said that she has seen the impacts of the heat on Columbia’s unhoused community firsthand.

“Probably five or six people that came in either last Monday or Thursday … suffering from heat exhaustion,” Armbrust said. “One person was, I think, throwing up during the entire clinic.”

Cat Armbrust, director of CoMo Mobile Aid Collective, tries to keep tabs on people in Columbia's unhoused community by keeping updated phone numbers to contact people about aid opportunities and just to check in.
Rebecca Smith
/
KBIA
Cat Armbrust, director of CoMo Mobile Aid Collective, tries to keep tabs on people in Columbia's unhoused community by keeping updated phone numbers to contact people about aid opportunities and just to check in.

Armburst said the medical team tried to get people’s body temperature down with ice packs and rehydrate them with fluids and electrolytes. She said that resources are scarce and concentrated to certain parts of the city, which means that unhoused people who don’t stay near the downtown area can have a hard time finding things like cool shelter and water.

Terry and Karen are an unhoused couple who have been living outside in Columbia for four months. They said that all of the cooling centers are downtown, which is relatively far away from where they are, and the buses that could take them there run limited hours. Because of this, it’s been a struggle for them to find places to cool off this summer.

“I had a heat stroke yesterday,” Karen said. “It was so hot. It was just so doggone hot. And the only resources there are is Stephens Lake, if you want to go swim with moss. I love to swim, so doesn't bother me.”

Terry (left), and Karen (right) are an unhoused married couple that has been living in Columbia for four months. They have struggled to deal with the heat, and say that they are not able to get to most of the cooling centers from where they usually stay. And at night, the heat can still be hard to deal with: "last night, it was 80 degrees at three o'clock in the morning", Terry said.
Rebecca Smith
/
KBIA
Terry (left), and Karen (right) are an unhoused married couple that has been living in Columbia for four months. They have struggled to deal with the heat, and say that they are not able to get to most of the cooling centers from where they usually stay. And at night, the heat can still be hard to deal with: "last night, it was 80 degrees at three o'clock in the morning", Terry said.

Karen said that it’s common for her to experience heat stroke, and the last time it happened her husband Terry tried to cool her down by pouring water down her back and neck. She said she carries water on her at all times, and they often sit in the shade to try to get out of the heat. But even sitting on the grass can have consequences of its own.

“I’ve got bug bites like you wouldn’t believe from everywhere from sleeping outside”, Karen said.

And outside of regular business hours, when most cooling centers are open, they said that finding a place to get out of the heat can be nearly impossible.

“Over the weekend, and if it's a holiday … and everything is gonna be shut down, and it's gonna be hot as Hades, you know, find some waters,” Terry said. “Find a tree, battle the ants and the ticks, and you might be alright.”

As for what individuals can do to help, advocates suggest having water or sunscreen in your car that you could give to someone or giving people a few dollars so they can buy something from a business and sit inside. And if you or someone you know is at immediate risk from heat exposure, call 911.

Anna Spidel
Rebecca Smith is a reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth desk and Sound Medicine News.