6 Easy, Important Ways to Help Neighbors in Your Community During a Heat Wave

published Aug 2, 2021
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For those who have the resources to stay cool, a heat wave is an inconvenience, albeit a serious one. But they present particular issues for marginalized communities — and those problems are only worsening in scope.

In June 2020, temperatures in Portland, Oregon, peaked at 116 degrees Fahrenheit during the same week that Tucson, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Billings, Montana, set heat records. The New York Times reported that “at least 67 weather stations from Washington State through New Mexico have recorded their hottest temperatures ever this summer,” amplifying concerns about the effects of climate change. 

These heat waves presented many challenges to the regions — and the Pacific Northwest, which typically experiences relatively mild summers and doesn’t have the infrastructure to support such high temperatures, was no exception. Oregon has among the highest rates of houselessness in the United States, behind only California, Hawaii, and New York; of those Oregonians, 61 percent are unsheltered. Without reliable shelter, they cannot seek refuge from scorching temperatures. 

Even people in their homes are still at risk: The elderly are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, and those who lack the funds to invest in air conditioning or fans are also in danger of overheating. Organizations like Rose Haven, a Portland day shelter serving women, children, and people of other marginalized gender identities, did their best to educate and prepare guests last month when the heat descended upon the Pacific Northwest. But making sure your neighbors have what they need to survive a heat wave takes a village.

Obviously, serious legislative action is needed in the long term, but heat waves and other natural disasters present an urgent need in vulnerable communities. So, what can be done on an individual level — especially given that Oregon wasn’t the only place experiencing extreme heat in late June, and it certainly won’t be the last? Here are six action items that anyone can take to support their community during a heat wave.

Credit: Getty Images | The Good Brigade

Get to know your neighbors, and especially your houseless ones.

Helping your community starts with knowing your community, whether that’s the neighbor down the hall or anyone in your area who is houseless. Engaging with the neighbors in your area gives you a better idea of the resources they actually need to survive, and makes them feel less isolated. “When you are going through a hard time, and especially if you are experiencing homelessness, there’s an element of invisibility and stigma that comes with that,” Liz Starke, the development director at Rose Haven, told Apartment Therapy.

Of course, it’s important to respect people’s boundaries and not intrude into their personal space. That goes double for houseless people, who often do not have the luxury of privacy — walking into their space uninvited is no different than a stranger walking into your home. But if you see someone and it feels appropriate, strike up a conversation with them. Ask them their name, how they are, or if there’s anything they need. 

Familiarize yourself with local resources, whether or not you personally need them.

During previous heat waves, many public spaces across the country were converted into temporary cooling centers for unsheltered people and people without AC to seek relief. Sharing that kind of information with those around you could be the difference between life and death — sometimes that’s as simple as signal-boosting a flyer on Instagram Stories. 

Beyond temporary heat-related resources, familiarize yourself with local food banks, shelters, advocacy organizations, and mutual aid programs — you can donate money, time, or services if you feel particularly driven (more on that later.) Overnight shelters offer a place to sleep, but Starke noted that because of current social distancing requirements, many are full, with long waitlists. It’s also worth familiarizing yourself with organizations in your area that can connect people with a social and legal safety net, in addition to heat relief. 

Inform people about incoming heat waves and related risks.

It can be all too easy to take weather alerts for granted — and if you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you also have access to a device that lets you know about the upcoming weather forecast. Not everyone has that luxury, and Starke notes that in June, many people were unaware of expected temperatures and free cooling centers because of limited internet access. “The people we serve didn’t necessarily know what was coming,” she said. “They don’t watch the news, and they only have access to the media when they charge their phones here. That was really a big part of what we were doing was distributing that information.” As a result, Rose Haven distributed fliers and made extra efforts to inform guests of weather conditions, as well as what to look out for when it comes to heat-related illnesses.

Taking similar steps in your area can be lifesaving. Local governments and organizations may already have distributable information sheets that you can print and hand out, but if you can’t find these types of resources, verbally inform folks in your neighborhood. Informing them can start with a sidewalk or elevator conversation: “Have you heard about the weather forecast?” or “Do you need anything for the heat wave?” In an apartment building, you can knock on neighbors’ doors to check on them, and direct them to local resources or medical attention if necessary. It can be awkward to start these conversations with people you don’t know well, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Credit: Minette Hand

Educate yourself on symptoms of heat-related illness.

In some cases, extreme weather temperatures can lead to serious illness or even death. Oregon officials reported at least 79 deaths as a result of the June heat wave, though it’s hard to calculate exactly how many people were hospitalized or killed as a result of extreme heat because of the range of symptoms heat-related illness can present. 

According to Dr. Brandon Maughan, an assistant medical director at Oregon Health and Science University’s (OHSU) emergency department, heat exhaustion and heatstroke are the two main illnesses to watch for, and there are key differences between the two. “Heat exhaustion describes some of the early signs and symptoms of significant heat-related illness. Think of these as the body’s warning signs that it is failing to cool itself and that your core (internal) temperature is rising,” he said. “Heat stroke is a medical emergency characterized by altered mental status or behavior in the setting of extreme heat,” and requires urgent medical assistance.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, a fast and weak pulse, headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps or weakness, and lightheadedness or dizziness; it can often be treated by getting out of the heat (or at least direct sunlight), drinking water and applying cool compresses. If symptoms of heat exhaustion last longer than an hour, or if someone is vomiting, confused, or agitated; experiencing slurred speech or seizures; or is unresponsive, seek emergency medical care immediately, Dr. Maughan said. Children and older adults are most susceptible to heat-related illness, so keep a close eye on these community members particularly, and encourage people to look out for one another.

Collect and hand out supplies, or donate to an organization that can.

Whatever you’re using at home to keep cool, your neighbors could probably use too. During the June heat wave in Oregon, Rose Haven distributed water bottles, cool towels, sunscreen, and popsicles to people experiencing houselessness; these and other supplies like hats, breathable clothing, umbrellas, and cold snacks are great to have on hand for some immediate relief.

Keep extra public transit passes in your wallet to hand out as well, if you can; Starke noted that air conditioned buses and trains may be a houseless person’s only access to AC on a hot day. Mutual aid groups in your area, like a community fridge program, may already be collecting and distributing resources if you’d like to consolidate efforts or can’t brave the heat yourself. My local organization is Portland Free Fridge, but there is likely one in your area — reach out through Instagram to find out how to best direct your money and supplies their way. 

Make it a habit to donate your time, money, and/or resources.

Everyone has the ability to help in some way, so choose what works best for you, whether that is time, money, resources, or a combination of these. Many organizations update their website and social media with urgent needs and requests, so following along online is often an easy way to stay in the loop. Rose Haven, for example, is currently fundraising for a move to a new space and upgrades to their facility.

Whatever capacity you choose, remember that your neighbors don’t just need help during heat waves. With many pandemic-related government assistance programs ending, there will be an urgent need for support long after the heat subsides. “We know that a lot of people were displaced because of COVID,” Starke said. “We are bracing ourselves because the eviction moratorium is coming to an end as well as the unemployment bonuses. So we’re about to see a whole new wave of people losing their housing. We just know more people are going to be needing our help.” Making a regular habit of supporting your community and the organizations that serve them is an investment in its future.