TAMPA — Under the blazing July sun, a skinny tree by the downtown cemetery offered a patch of shade roughly the size of a card table.
That’s where Aleida Wiese took refuge on a recent afternoon — along with her 71-year-old husband in his wheelchair, their belongings and her brother. It was a humid 92 degrees with a feels-like temperature between 103 and 107, according to the National Weather Service, no hint of a breeze, no rain in sight.
When a sweaty troop of homeless advocates came along, Wiese, 61, gratefully accepted a cold bottled water.
“Oh, it does help,” said Wiese, who has been homeless off and on for a few years. “We have gone through so much. Once you’re homeless, things just start getting smaller for you.”
The day Wiese and her family sought shade under the tree, temperatures were climbing dangerously high across parts of the United States, and Britain was shattering its own record for the highest temperature ever registered. In June, a heat advisory was issued for the Tampa Bay area, with August, one of the hottest months of the year, still to come.
“It’s a heat that’s unbearable,” said Richard Otto, a 46-year-old homeless man in a New York baseball cap sitting on a Tampa curb.
In the thick of a searing summer, what happens to the population least able to get out of the heat: the people living on the streets?
In Pinellas, a spokeswoman for the county human services department said they are monitoring the heat index and the homeless but not doing anything specific at the moment. A spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg Police recently said officers hadn’t seen anything unusual related to the heat.
Felicia Crosby-Rucker, director of Hillsborough County Homeless and Community Services, said they noted the high heat early on with “a lot more summer ahead of us.”
“What we did was we purchase cooling kits,” she said.
The kits are packed into lightweight backpack-style drawstring bags being distributed by the dozens by police and agencies that help the homeless.
Each kit, which costs roughly $12 to assemble, contains a reusable cooling towel that can be soaked in water and hung around the neck for hours. Also inside: sunscreen, bug repellent, a resource guide, socks, hygiene items and pouches labeled “emergency drinking water.” The people handing them out often bring cold water to distribute, too.
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“The water is definitely appreciated,” said Jeremy Freeman of Metropolitan Ministries, one of the agencies helping to hand out 300 bags so far. Crosby-Rucker said 300 more are on the way.
Hillsborough officials are contemplating opening five cooling centers around the county and in Tampa. These facilities would be open to anyone who needs them — “just a cool space for people to shelter where they can get bottled water to stay there for the peak hours,” Crosby-Rucker said. The county is reaching out to its community partners to see if there is space available and sufficient staff and volunteers, she said.
Homeless people have developed their own strategies.
“We go to Curtis Hixon Park, jump in the fountains and try to wet your head and wet your whole body,” said Otto, referring to the interactive fountains that face Ashley Drive. “Get cool drinks somehow. Find some shade. Bridges, bus shelters.”
They take in air conditioning at the public library, in convenience stores and anywhere else they can.
“You have to pace yourself,” said Jay Davie, 43. “You have to always have water. You go in a restroom and fill your bottle. You go in Burger King and most often they’ll give you a cup of ice water.”
“In the afternoon,” said Charlene Williams, who has asthma and is diabetic, “you get tired and sleepy.”
Tampa Police Capt. Alex Thiel said funds from the department’s nonprofit Rise Tampa foundation have been used to purchase Gatorade and water. “We do the best we can to make sure they stay cool and hydrated,” he said.
For some, it’s not just a matter of sweat and discomfort.
Extreme heat can contribute to cardiovascular, respiratory, kidney and other health problems, said Chris Uejio, associate professor at Florida State University who studies how the environment influences health and well-being. Heat can cause balance-related concerns for older people and make falling more likely, he said. Dehydration can lead to impairment of mental health functions.
In the United States, “extreme heat contributes to more deaths than any other weather hazard — hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding,” Uejio said. The Environmental Protection Agency says some statistics estimate more than 1,300 deaths per year in the U.S. are due to extreme heat.
In 2021, in the county that includes Phoenix, Arizona, one of the hottest cities in America, at least 130 homeless people died from heat-related causes — about 42% of the county’s heat-related deaths.
John Paul Comas, director of Metropolitan Ministries’ BrigAIDe mobile outreach team, said some people who once did not want to go into shelter now do “because of the heat.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said as deputies encounter the homeless on the streets, they try to get them into the Safe Harbor shelter, which has room. ”The hard part with the chronically homeless population is to get them to go,” he said. “We’ve got a facility available for them.”
At Trinity Cafe on Nebraska Avenue, where the homeless line up early for hot, sit-down lunches, the doors open early so people can fill water bottles. Though the sweet tea always is popular, lately ice water is more so. Guests linger longer — though on a recent Monday, Trinity’s air conditioner was under repair and ceiling fans were whirring hard on high.
“We see a lot of our guests coming in and they’re carrying everything they own,” said retiree and volunteer Deb Fullerton. “I’m getting in my air conditioned car and going to my air conditioned house. These people are leaving here and just finding a place to sit down.”
Cheeseburgers and anything Italian are favorites, but the menu has adjusted for the heat: “We back off the spices a little bit. We try to make it a little bit lighter,” said chef Daniel Graves. They serve cookies for dessert instead of a cobbler or crisp, and no soup.
“Way too hot,” Graves said.
“It’s this hot in Florida and the numbers of people in need of support continue to rise,” said Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, which covers 10 counties including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough and runs the three Trinity Cafes. “So it’s just an awful combination of the two.”
Waiting with his girlfriend for the cafe to open, Davie said he’s a journeyman ironworker by trade. He said he wants a job but needs to find a safe place for his girlfriend, who is bipolar, to stay while he is at work.
“We’ve been over a week without a shower,” he said. “It’s just hard to sleep when you’re filthy dirty and sweating.”
Marcia Hall, founder of Mrbubblez mobile showers, said the sweltering weather has increased demand.
The nonprofit takes four portable toilets that have been converted into private showers to churches and other locations, offering showers and clean clothes.
“The heat is just added to everything else that’s going on with inflation, the loss of housing,” Hall said. Often 15 people get showers on a Saturday morning before the water and clean clothes run out.
“They really appreciate that shower,” she said. And if they had the capacity, “we could do 50 or more, easily.”
“People are hot,” said Comas. “And there’s no relief.”