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Lack of homes for people are leading to more burns from hot pavement in Phoenix

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

No major U.S. city gets more days with triple-digit heat than Phoenix. And that heat is leading to more and more deaths. Homeless advocates say one major issue is that not only does Arizona have too much hot weather, it also doesn't have enough homes. From member station KJZZ, Katherine Davis-Young reports.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: It's a hot morning. And Paul Yager is getting his vitals checked at a mobile clinic providing care to homeless patients. He's 64. He's HIV positive. And on most nights, he sleeps in a park nearby. He credits this team with keeping him alive.

PAUL YAGER: I got a lot of life to live. And with God's help, maybe I can live another 10 years.

DAVIS-YOUNG: But surviving summers in Phoenix without shelter is hard. Back in July, when temperatures here stayed above 110 for over a week, Yager says he collapsed and couldn't get up for hours.

YAGER: I'm not good anyhow, so it's just - it's not good - it's not helping me to be out in this kind of weather.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The heat is harming more and more Arizonans. From 2005 to 2015, the Phoenix metro area averaged 78 heat-associated deaths per year. But the death toll has reached a record high every summer since. Last year, there were an unprecedented 339 heat deaths. 2022 is on track to be even deadlier.

KEVIN FOSTER: This is a really bad summer for us.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Dr. Kevin Foster directs the Arizona Burn Center. Pavement can heat up to over 150 degrees in the Phoenix sun. Every year, Foster treats patients who fall, can't get up and develop severe burns. But Foster says patient demographics are changing. In the past, patients were usually older adults. Now they're younger, often homeless, and more of their falls are related to drug use.

FOSTER: They go down, and they stay down for a long time, and they end up not only getting really bad burns, but they suffer heat prostration and heatstroke. And oftentimes, their temperatures come in, and they're 108 or 109 degrees Fahrenheit.

DAVIS-YOUNG: County records show heat deaths are increasingly occurring outdoors among unhoused people. About 60% of cases involve substance use.

DAVID HONDULA: My interpretation is the increase is much more related to what's happening with social services than it is related to climate.

DAVIS-YOUNG: David Hondula is director of Phoenix's newly launched Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. His goal is to reduce heat fatalities. He's concerned that already hot temperatures here are rising. The National Weather Service projects Phoenix will average more than 120 days per year with triple-digit heat by the end of this decade. But Hondula is more troubled by another trend. As housing prices have skyrocketed, the region's unsheltered population has tripled since 2016. That's turning heat into a more critical threat.

HONDULA: The unsheltered community is at about 200 to 300 times higher risk than the rest of the population.

DAVIS-YOUNG: It's not just the long hours spent outdoors. Hondula says people without shelter also have limited access to medical care, increased likelihood of chronic health problems and high rates of addiction, all of which can raise risk. Dehydration and exhaustion can also be disastrous for mental health, says psychiatric nurse practitioner Nina Gomez back at the mobile clinic run by the nonprofit Circle the City.

NINA GOMEZ: The stress from the heat really exacerbates psychosis. And then it becomes so much harder to get people in to engage in any services.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The city of Phoenix is making large investments to address the housing crisis, but these issues can't be solved overnight. So for now, organizations like Circle the City try to deliver short-term solutions.

GOMEZ: We're trying to intervene early, so get people hydrated, get them some food, see if they need anything before it gets to a full crisis.

DAVIS-YOUNG: And as hot weather drags on, unsheltered people at the clinic say they'll drink water, keep a hat on and just try to stay cool. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katherine Davis-Young