TAMPA — In a baking parking lot at the northern edge of downtown, Kellee Lansdale sat on a curb with only a T-shirt, stained shorts and a pair of broken sunglasses to shield her from the sun climbing higher in the sky.
She’d heard the city of Tampa was operating cooling centers, a refuge against a merciless heat that has ground down people’s health and patience throughout the summer in Florida and beyond.
But she didn’t have a bus pass and didn’t think her flip-flops or her lungs could handle the 2-mile walk to the closest cooling center. So she sat on the curb, one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who are unhoused and unsheltered during one of the most scorching summers on record.
In response to the excessive heat warning and heat advisories, the city opened three centers last Thursday, offering light snacks and water throughout the weekend, eight hours per day for one week. But they haven’t attracted much traffic.
On Thursday, a total of 10 people visited the centers, staffed by city employees, AmeriCorps service members and Red Cross volunteers, according to city data. On Friday, there were 39 visitors. Over the weekend, there were 86 — averaging a little more than a dozen people per center per day.
On Tuesday, 18 people showed up at the center in Ybor’s Cuscaden Park. One person visited the center in West Tampa’s Macfarlane Park. No one came to the center in Al Lopez Park near Raymond James Stadium. The next day, a total of 45 people visited the three centers.
After initial publication of this article, Jessica Serre of the city’s parks and recreation department said the data provided had been incomplete. She provided a “final count” of 282 visitors across the week, or an average of 13 people at each of the three centers daily.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke with more than two dozen people experiencing homelessness across downtown early this week. Apart from Lansdale, none knew the centers existed.
June Brown, the homeless liaison for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit that manages the district through an agreement with the city, also said she wasn’t aware of the service.
“They have what?” she said when told by a Times reporter as she handed out water and food Tuesday.
Tampa officials disseminated information about the centers via media advisories, official city social media channels and neighborhood app Nextdoor, said Serre.
The city also launched a text alert system to spread the word about heat advisories, cooling center openings and other heat-related information such as utility bill assistance.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa
Subscribe to our free Tampa Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
As a cloud offered a moment of respite Tuesday afternoon, Lansdale spotted Brown.
“I need a place to go. I’m going to die out here,” she said, staggering over to Brown’s vehicle. “I’ll be 60 in October but I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
“Don’t say that, don’t say that,” Brown replied.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Lansdale said over the thrum of the nearby highway. “Every time I try to go to sleep, some weirdo comes up on me. I’m getting attacked by the ants. I’ve been robbed. And the heat, the heat.”
Brown rubbed her temples, as if trying to will into existence a solution to the fact that July had been the hottest month in Tampa’s recorded history, and that August was far from over.
For so many experiencing homelessness in Tampa and swaths of sunbaked communities across the country, summer was a fight for survival — bouncing between air-conditioned libraries, supermarkets and parks during the day, and sleeping in motels or cars or by overpasses at night.
The average nighttime temperature in Tampa last month was also the hottest ever recorded. And those records don’t consider the humidity, which can make conditions more dangerous by limiting the body’s ability to cool itself.
The city selected the three cooling centers based on “centralized location” and the capacity to host the service without disrupting other programming, Serre said in an email to the Times.
There was no downtown location, she wrote, because the Kid Mason Community Center is about to undergo renovations.
“The downtown core also has a larger base of public facilities that people could unofficially utilize. This is also true for the more commercialized districts of the City,” she wrote. The city did not provide cost estimates for operating the centers.
Throughout the summer, experts and officials have warned residents to protect themselves against the dangers of extreme heat, including dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke — health risks that stand to intensify as a changing climate brings higher temperatures more regularly that will likely endure for longer periods.
But for those without shelter or a car, finding relief is not always possible.
At bus stops scattered across Tampa and surrounding county, fewer than a third have some kind of shade or shelter for those waiting. Along Busch Boulevard this week, clumps of people huddled under umbrellas or ducked under the awnings of local businesses to escape the sun. Along Fowler Avenue, others spread cardboard boxes under shrubs or turned over shopping carts to rest their legs.
Near the Marion Transit Center, a man named Ron nursed a Gatorade he’d received from a nearby church. He’d survived worse heat, he said, serving in Vietnam.
On Ashley Drive, a couple tried to stay as still as possible, relishing the occasional mist spraying from the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
And at a downtown library, Rhonda Soule was among at least half a dozen homeless people savoring the air-conditioned cool.
“Survival out here is tough,” said Soule, dabbing her forehead. “It’s hard to sleep, hard to breathe, hard to live.”
For months, her routine had been this: Try, and fail, to get some sleep under a bridge. Rise before the sun and spend a few hours by the river. Use the public restroom when it opens at 7 a.m. Sit in the shade until the library opens. Sit in the library until it closes at 4 p.m. Then look, and hopefully find, her first meal of the day.
Meanwhile, in the parking lot, Brown returned to Lansdale with a cup full of ice, a can of Coca-Cola and a sandwich from a local business.
“Thank you,” replied Lansdale, before trying to find some shade.