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‘My friend died.’ County leaves homeless outside in extreme heat despite health risks

James Morgan said he has had three heat strokes since he’s been homeless.

“My whole body was on fire,” he said.

On a recent 90-degree day, he stood in the searing sun, waiting to get into a soup kitchen — one of few times he goes indoors most days. He carried an orange winter coat over his left shoulder and a blue fleece blanket over the right. The homeless man said even on scorching days, he keeps the coat with him.

“It’s sentimental,” he said. His brother gave it to him before he died in 2012.

“Today it’s so hot, I feel my feet burning,” Morgan said.

The Department of Homeland Security defines a 2 or 3 day streak of 90-degree temperatures as “extreme heat”. Department officials say people should find air conditioning on those days to avoid heat exhaustion and stroke.

Charlotte averages 15 days in July above 90 degrees, posing a danger to over a thousand people living on the streets. A one-night count in 2016 tallied 1674 people.

In other areas in the U.S., including New York City, Houston and Tucson, local governments open cooling centers to help the homeless and others without access to air conditioning to avoid the threat of extreme heat. Not only do the official shelters have AC, but many offer snacks, water, meals and nurses.

But Mecklenburg County hasn’t opened a summer cooling center since July 2012, said public information communicator Lawrence Corley. Not even in 2015 when the temperature reached 100 degrees.

“There has not been a need,” said county manager Dena Diorio.

But weather experts said that people don’t often recognize the actual danger of heat. It can become a health concern when the heat index, which considers humidity in addition to temperature, is around 100 degrees, said Daniel Johnson of Indiana University.

“Heat is, most years, the number one reason for dying from a weather-related event, and homeless populations are especially vulnerable,” Johnson said.

Patrick Swain said without shelter, the heat feels searing. Pointing down to his red, swollen calves, he said it’s hard to stay hopeful.

“A person can only be so strong,” Swain said. “My friend died last year.”

Not many options

Sixteen of the first 18 days in July reached at least 90 degrees, Time and Date records show. Throughout the stifling days, some homeless people scout areas to catch minutes of air conditioning.

Kenney Walker, a friend of Morgan, peruses Walmart and Food Lion for air conditioning — but without money to buy food. And he said he can only do that for a while before looking suspicious.

Other homeless people stay in their overnight shelter or the merged Urban Ministry Center/Men’s Shelter of Charlotte’s daytime center for air-conditioning. However, only some shelters allow overnight residents to stay inside and the daytime center is often crowded.

“I’ve always had bad experiences there because there are so many people,” said Tyre Bennet, who often goes to libraries instead.

With the daytime center closing at 12:30 p.m. on the weekends and the Homeless Resource Center open for four meals each week, UMC/MSC volunteer Angie Ford said sometimes there aren’t many cool options. She often hears homeless people mention a “great need” for cooling centers, she said.

Bennet and Walker said they would go to a cooling location if the county opened one.

“(The county) doesn’t owe us anything. But I think they can help a little bit more,” Walker said.

Cooling locations

The county used to have specific criteria to open a cooling location. Now, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management public educator Hannah Sanborn said, “we don’t have a hard and fast rule.”

Staff meets in “sheltering task force” to determine need for a cooling location, she said. They also monitor call volumes asking for a cooling location.

There’s a reason the county hasn’t gotten calls.

Morgan, Bennet and Walker said they’d never heard of a Mecklenburg cooling location and wouldn’t know who to call to ask for one.

Sanborn said that instead of official cooling locations, homeless people can find air conditioning at any library. The county is also “encouraging folks right now to use our park and rec facilities,” information specialist Corley told The Observer.

But to access some facilities, homeless people would need to pay a fee. For example, accessing a county indoor pool costs $15 and entrance into a Mecklenburg fitness center costs $5 for a non-resident adult.

The Charlotte Observer requested documentation from the county on the cooling location process, and the county responded that they do not have any documents to provide.

“Because we no longer use the previously documented protocol, the documentation is no longer applicable. We have yet to formally document the procedures we currently use when it comes to making a decision to open a cooling center,” Sanborn wrote in an email to The Observer.

After this article was originally published online, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Emergency Management posted on social media the weekend hours for the Urban Ministry Center/Men’s Shelter’s locations and the Salvation Army Center of Hope. Heat index values were predicted to reach 105 degrees over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

As of Friday, the county had “no plans to open a cooling center,” Sanborn wrote in an email.

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