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Phoenix's summer heat response plan emphasizes outreach to homeless and hikers

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, April 28, 2022 - 4:48am
Updated: Thursday, May 5, 2022 - 11:43am

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A Phoenix skyline
Getty Images
The sun sets over Phoenix.

The Phoenix City Council recently approved a heat response plan for this summer. For the first time, staff from the city’s homeless services program will join volunteers as they pass out water and maps to cooling centers.

David Hondula, the city’s director of heat response and mitigation, told the council the majority of the 196 heat-related deaths in Phoenix last year involved middle-aged men who became ill outdoors. 

“And as we see every year, about two-thirds of cases occur among individuals who have some indication of substance abuse or those experiencing homeless,” he said.

Working with community partners, Phoenix will have expanded day and nighttime shelter capacity this summer and plans are underway to open a new shelter at  28th and Washington streets. 

Scott Hall, interim deputy director with the city’s human services department homeless services program, said Maricopa County will pay the operating costs while Phoenix will cover case managers, transportation and storage.    

“The addition of these resources will ensure the outcome that we’re trying to achieve with this. We plan on creating capacity through outcome by getting people exited to positive housing outcomes and create a cycle of people coming through the project that way,” he said.

The goal is to open the shelter by the end of May and serve 200 people at a time. The council must approve more funding to keep it open year-round.

Homeless tents
Tom Maxedon/KJZZ
Tents in downtown Phoenix in August 2020.

Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari wants to see more signs that direct people to cooling centers.

“I think from my perspective last year we did a very bad job with that, with the services we do have. We have apps, we have different things but that folks that are unsheltered don’t have access to and even with the cooling bus that we had, we had a very small sign,” she said.

Hondula said Phoenix will distribute window decals, yard signs and vertical flights to identify publicly accessible cooled space and drinking water.

In 2021, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health reported a record high number of heat-associated deaths at 338. Historically, Phoenix is home to several ZIP codes with especially high rates of heat-associated deaths, including 85034, 85004 and 85007.

The city is looking for 40 volunteers to enroll in its “We’re Cool” program. Trained volunteers distribute water and maps and directions to public cooling centers. The city’s homeless services staff will join volunteers on shifts in targeted areas. Volunteers will also distribute water at popular city trailheads.

Signs at city trailheads will include safety messages and rangers will be trained to recognize heat illness symptoms. When temperatures exceed 100 degrees, rangers are deployed to select trailheads and, where possible, coolers are provided so hikers can refill their personal bottles.

In October 2021, the Parks Board voted to close the summit trails at Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on days the National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat watch.

Dogs are not allowed on any city trails when temperatures hit 100 degrees.

Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Trail
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Hikers on Camelback Mountain's Echo Canyon Trail in April 2017.

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