The COVID-19 pandemic means Arizona’s heat-relief programs have added hand sanitizer, gloves and masks to the mix of survival items—water, lip balm, sunscreen and more water—they provide to homeless and vulnerable populations each summer.
June 4 marked the 15th day of excessive heat warnings in Arizona this year, an early start to triple-digit temperatures, which have continued through July and can lead to serious heat-related illnesses.
Coupled with the risks of contracting COVID-19, excessive heat can create deadly conditions for those without shelter. Last year, the heat claimed 197 lives in Maricopa County alone.
“We see people struggling in the heat,” said Maj. David Yardley of the Salvation Army. “We look for the symptoms, you know, of their body not functioning, and we say, ‘Hey, we have a place for you.’”
Municipal governments and volunteer organizations each summer set up about 75 hydration stations and cooling shelters around metro Phoenix. But these groups must balance heat relief with efforts to protect against COVID-19.
“We know there is a possibility that the virus will impact the people that we serve,” said Mike Hanosh, a spokesman for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “We absolutely know that if we don’t provide heat relief for members of our community, people will die.”
Heat-relief stations extend aid beyond the homeless population, also serving the elderly and people with mental health illnesses, who, Yardley said, are more likely to underestimate the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and suffer more from them.
Yardley said traffic to the stations has increased because the pandemic has closed malls, libraries and restaurants, where homeless people used to go for refuge from the sun and a drink of water.
Hanosh said the challenge of COVID-19 for St. Vincent de Paul, which organizes food services and distributes donations across Maricopa County, includes allowing fewer volunteers to populate the building, leaving them with a skeleton crew.
For weeks, St. Vincent de Paul has required all who enter their facilities to wear masks and have their body temperature checked, and it is increasing the number of sanitizing stations and reducing the shelter’s capacity to 40 people from 150.
Donations to any heat-relief centers can include such things as gently used hats or a quick bite to eat.
“You’d be surprised,” Yardley said. “A snack can go a long way.”
Heat-relief centers around the West Valley also accept donations to help meet COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But the most important donation remains water.
“It’s staggering, the amount of water we go through,” Hanosh said.
Peoria has set up shaded self-service stations outside city buildings.
The coolers are cleaned and refilled regularly with cold water, said Kristina Perez, communications manager for the city.