When the doors of the Hagginwood Community Center in North Sacramento opened at 1 p.m. Tuesday, the main room offered a steady blast of cool air to anyone who came in from the 105 degree heat.
Angela Phillips was among the first to claim a spot amid the rows of spaced-out plastic chairs.
“I do definitely appreciate the air conditioning today, and the granola bar,” she said.
She said she lost her job at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then couldn’t pay her rent. Since then she’s been sleeping in her car.
“What other options do I have?,” she said of spending the day at the center. “Better to be cool and safe.”
Triple-digit temperatures present a unique challenge during the pandemic, as many libraries, malls and other spaces where people would normally cool off are closed. With afternoon temperatures climbing as high as 108 degrees this week, the city and county of Sacramento rushed to open cooling centers where residents without access to air conditioning can seek refuge from the heat.
But advocates for Sacramento’s unhoused and low-income residents say these temporary centers are a band-aid for the larger racial and economic inequities that leave some people more susceptible to heat illness than others.
“It’s almost not safe for anybody to be out in this for too long, and yet there are people who don’t have houses,” said Jordan McGowan, an organizer with a community group called Sacramento Neighbor. “The folks that don’t have houses typically are Black and brown, poor, folks … This heat wave is just another example of how the people come second.”
Heat And Health
Extreme heat poses a number of health risks, especially for young children, elderly people and those who live with a chronic condition. Rates of obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart failure are higher among Black and Latino Californians than White Californians, which has been tied to socioeconomic factors.
About 700 people succumb to heat death in America annually, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are two main types of heat-related illness:
- Heat exhaustion can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, headache or nausea and can exacerbate heart and respiratory diseases.
- Heat stroke occurs when heat exhaustion progresses into a life-threatening condition. During severe cases of heat stroke, body temperatures can rise above 103°F, causing damage to the brain or other organs.
Dr. Janine Bera is chief medical officer for WellSpace Health, which runs community clinics throughout the Sacramento region. She said providing air conditioned spaces during heat waves can save lives, even if it involves the added risk of putting people in close proximity during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The virus is much more easily passed when you are indoors than when you’re outdoors,” she said. But at the same time, she adds, people can die from heat stroke just as they can from COVID-19, “so we have to sort of balance everything,” she said.
At two cooling centers that CapRadio visited Wednesday, staff gave out masks, provided sanitizing liquids and asked people to sit apart from one another. The director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management said in a statement that the centers will comply with county and state guidelines for COVID-19 prevention.
The city opened centers in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood of North Sacramento and the Florin area of South Sacramento — two ZIP codes where the median income falls far below that of the county on the whole.
A recent study out of the University of Southern California found that people living in poorer areas were less likely to have air conditioning than people in wealthier areas. Researchers noted that people may be having a harder time paying utility bills due to job loss or reduced hours during the pandemic.
A High-Temp ‘Hardscape’
The Hagginwood Community Center has grassy fields and a playground, but the surrounding area is mostly paved. Nearby blocks in the North Sacramento neighborhood are home to apartment complexes, automotive stores and churches. The residential streets lack the leafy green canopy that hangs over wealthier areas such as Land Park or East Sacramento.
According to recent research out of Portland State University that maps heat by ZIP code, a lot of asphalt combined with few trees means temperatures in low-income communities can be 20 degrees higher than those of well-shaded neighborhoods.
Victoria Vasquez with the Sacramento Tree Foundation says this phenomenon dates back to the original development of neighborhoods, when the city neglected to designate areas for tree-planting in low-income areas.
“What this has done is created a heat island,” she said. “ We’ve built shopping centers and businesses and churches with paved parking lots without putting trees in.” As a result, she says, these “hardscape” areas suck in heat during the day, and emit it into the air at night.
Vasquez has been leading an effort to get new trees planted in South Sacramento. She said it’s key to improving neighborhood health, as more shade gives people more cool places to exercise.
“We have created a group of people who suffer the most asthma, the most obesity, the most anxiety, and they suffer the highest, hottest temperatures,” she said. “And because we don’t maintain trees for them, we’re telling people whom we know have the lowest amount of income and resources to basically plant and maintain their own trees.”
One initiative Vasquez is working on aims to plant more than 2,050 trees in South Sacramento before the spring of 2022. Currently, the foundation is offering $5,000 grants to South Sacramento groups who want to run beautification projects involving tree planting or maintenance.
Unhoused In A Heat Wave
At Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Sacramento Tuesday, people rolled tarps out under trees or parked shopping carts near shady benches, hoping to find relief from the triple-degree heat.
Across the street at the Sacramento Public Library, staff welcomed people to a free cooling center operated by the city. They gave out face masks, water and snacks as a movie played in a large, air-conditioned room.
Several individuals in the park said they were aware the cooling center was open, but preferred to stay outside.
Mike Campo, who identified as homeless, sat in a shaded corner of the plaza with several other people. He said the centers are fine for a few hours, but at the end of the day people living outdoors have to fend for themselves during the heatwave.
“One, you have nowhere to go, and two you basically just sit outside and sweat all day long,” he said. “But that’s fine, that’s part of life. You get into this situation and that’s the way it is. There’s nothing you can do about it, and there’s nothing the government is really going to do about it.”
Homeless people are likely having a harder time than usual escaping the heat this summer due to the pandemic, said Chayo Lavin, chair of the first responders committee with Anti Police-Terror Project Sacramento.
“They can’t even pop into a store or buy something cheap at Burger King and chill in the AC, so it’s much worse right now,” Lavin said, adding that transportation barriers or COVID-19 concerns might prevent some unhoused people from seeking out cooling centers.
Social justice groups raised alarm Tuesday about the impact of the heat wave on people facing housing insecurity. The advocates say cooling centers don’t go far enough to help the region’s thousands of unhoused people. They urged local officials to shift public dollars away from law enforcement agencies to help the homeless population.
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