As Temperatures Rise, City's Homeless Population Especially at Risk

Jul 18, 2013

With the heat reaching 90 degrees all this week, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have been opening and extending the hours of cooling centers for the elderly — but what about the homeless?

Dr. Jim Withers, medical director and founder of Operation Safety Net, said the homeless, especially those who are elderly, are at risk during the heat.

“They don’t have the opportunity necessarily to get into air conditioning or to adjust their body temperature in ways that we normally do, so we keep a very close eye on them to see if there’s any signs that they’re getting into trouble,” Withers said.

Operation Safety Net is a program in which Withers and other social workers make medical “house calls” for those who do not have a house.

Withers said the homeless especially need water on days with extreme heat, but with the absence of public water fountains, he has other suggestions.

“Just staying out of the midday sun as much as possible, if they can get into a drop in center or someplace like that, we try to encourage them to do that,” Withers said.

Pittsburgh has more than 60 shelters, but Dr. Withers said Pennsylvania only allows them to stay for a certain number of days a year.

Withers said that programs like Operation Safety Net need donations, but not just money.

“Bottled water, I mean it’s a simple thing but it’s a huge need right now for most of our programs,” Withers said.

He warned not to judge people who are ill in public.

“Just be aware, if you see someone who looks very ill don’t just assume that they’re intoxicated or something, they may be suffering from a heat stroke,” Withers said.

Heat stroke occurs when the body reaches a temperature over 105 degrees and results in the failure of the body’s temperature control system.

For the unsheltered population that does experience severe illnesses due to the heat, programs like Operation Safety Net can help or the unsheltered population can go to the hospital.

“The emergency rooms here will see anybody; it just is a matter of legal and ethical principle they really have to evaluate,” Withers said. “But we try to keep things from getting to the point where that is the case.”