What it’s like to be homeless in the summer

November 29, 2019 | For D.C.'s homeless population, this heat isn't just uncomfortable. It's dangerous. (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON — It’s often winter’s cold nights that spark concern over the health and well-being of the homeless. But the long days of summer are just as dangerous.

Maxine Abayomicole, 65, sums it up in one sentence: “To be homeless in the summer is a catastrophe,” she said.

When you have no shelter from the sun, no reprieve from high temperatures and no reliable access to clean water, summer isn’t so fun and carefree.

Abayomicole is a regular client at Thrive DC, a nonprofit organization in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood that works to prevent and end homelessness. For the past four years, she has been coming to Thrive to receive meals and get help refilling her prescriptions. Abayomicole says she also comes for companionship.

And while Abayomicole is not homeless herself, many of the friends she has made at Thrive are, and she sees the struggles they endure everyday.

“They’re thirsty, they’re tired, they’re sweating and they don’t have any place to go,” she said.

During summer, D.C. sets up cooling centers throughout the city, but getting to those centers isn’t easy if you don’t have access to transportation.

“If you don’t have the funds, then you have to walk,” Abayomicole said. “In the winter, we have the hypothermia vans that pick you up … they don’t do that in the summer.”

Alicia Horton, executive director of Thrive DC, says not everyone is aware of the cooling centers. She sets out fliers highlighting the various locations at Thrive’s morning meal, but that only reaches a small sample of the homeless community.

“It is not an end-all be-all for folks, particularly for those who don’t have the means to get there, don’t have the transportation funds to migrate across the city to get to those places,” she said.  

Clothes and socks soaked with sweat contribute to infections, and dehydration is a main concern.

“To be out in that heat can be life threatening,” Horton added.

And that’s just the tip of summer’s iceberg. While heat and humidity are predictable throughout the season, severe thunderstorms that come with high winds and dangerous bursts of lightning are less calculable.

“The thunderstorms that we’ve been having here this summer have been accompanied by tremendous winds, tree limbs are falling — it really is a hazard just to be outdoors,” Horton said.

Thrive DC helps the homeless navigate summer’s hazards as much as possible. The organization offers programming in an air-conditioned space throughout the day. Clients can work in the computer lab, undergo job training or even take a music class.

Those who visit Thrive can also do their laundry and take a shower.

“A cold shower in the summertime can really make the difference between you feeling like a human being and not, so we really have thought to create a service that addresses some of those unseen needs,” Horton said.

If you want to help, Thrive is always in need of additional supplies, such as ponchos, toiletries and personal care items to hand out to its guests.

Looking out for others during these hot weeks also goes a long way.

“If you see somebody laying on the ground, don’t assume he’s drunk. He’s tired, he’s hungry, he doesn’t know where to go, so [he’s] going to sleep right here on this cement, which is cool,” Abayomicole said.

Horton says if you see someone who appears to be in distress, call 911 and let a medical professional assess the situation. And of course, direct them to Thrive.

“Thrive has an open-door policy. They turn no one away,” Abayomicole said.

 

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