A typical homeless encampment on a “heat island” in Fresno shortly before being swept by the city. Photo by Bob McCloskey

Catastrophic Climate Change While Being Unhoused

It’s already deadly on the streets of Fresno. It’s deadly, in part, because it is Fresno City policy to continue encampment sweeps and because of its refusal to support safe camps. Women, the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable human beings are being forced to scatter around the city on a regular basis, leaving them on their own and subject to attack, accidents and exposure.

Tragically, three unhoused residents of Fresno recently lost their lives. There was the death of Monique Contreraz, 29, who was killed in a horrific hit and run on May 13. On May 12, an unidentified man was found deceased in front of the B.F. Fisk Courthouse on O Street. On May 10, an unidentified elderly man was found dead in front of the 7-11 at Bullard Avenue and Fresno Street.

How many more human beings will perish on the streets of Fresno this summer when excessive killer heat sets in? Catastrophic climate change is already here. The City and County must take immediate action to prevent further loss of life this summer by supporting safe camps, providing an adequate number of cooling centers and establishing water stations throughout the city.

Polls show that 70% of Americans understand that climate change is happening, however, most don’t think it affects them. Here in the Central Valley, it affects everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

In an average year from 1971 to 2000, the Central Valley region experienced about five days of extreme heat above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate projections show that within the next 30 years there will be 30 days annually with extreme heat conditions. Alarmingly, in 2021, areas around Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced experienced 27, 36 and 17 days of extreme heat, respectively.

People such as outdoor workers and those who are unhoused face a greater risk of heat stroke and other heat-related health effects.

Increasing temperatures also dry out the vegetation, increasing the risk of fires. Climate change has dramatically increased the number of major wildfires in the region.

Wildfire smoke settles in the Central Valley, which decreases the already poor air quality of the region, resulting in increased respiratory disease, heart disease and other health conditions, particularly for the unhoused community that live outside 24 hours every day.

Another immediate impact of climate change is a phenomenon known as climate migration. In 2019, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center calculated that weather-related disasters, many of them linked to climate change, displaced 24 million people worldwide.

These disasters included two Level 4 hurricanes that devastated Central American countries in 2020, displacing 600,000 people. In Honduras, 80% of all agriculture was destroyed by the storms. The United Nations estimates that 3.5 million people in the region have faced food insecurity due to recurring droughts driven by climate change.

In 2019, 2.2 million people in Central America lost their crops, with 1.4 million needing urgent assistance. From 1994 to 2013, climate risk affected Honduras more than any other country in the world. Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala are all among the top 15 countries affected by climate risk. (It should be noted that the region produces less than 0.8% of net global emissions.)

As the region’s temperature increases, more drought is predicted. More drought means more climate refugees migrating to the United States.

Many immigrants who arrive in the United States to earn a living cannot earn enough for housing and are homeless. Homeless immigrants are unseen, a shadow population among the unhoused, and uncounted.

Many are reluctant to seek services or to go to shelters. Their lack of legal status in the United States makes them hesitant to seek assistance. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal housing subsidies or food stamps and experience what other unhoused people experience: rents are too high and wages are too low.

As the climate catastrophe ahead of us continues to unfold, we can expect more unhoused climate refugees on the streets of Fresno. Being a climate refugee must be added to the causes of homelessness.

Another cause of homelessness is low wages. While the cost of living increases, wages don’t. In the United States, the minimum wage has gone up around 350% since 1970. The Consumer Price Index (measurement of inflation) has increased by 480%. Recent high inflation will further increase poverty.

While low wages contribute to homelessness, unemployment is also a significant factor. Reasons for unemployment vary, and some regions have higher rates than others. Once persons are unemployed for a time, they can easily slip into homelessness. Research shows that most unhoused people want to work but face obstacles such as not having a permanent address.

Lack of affordable housing is another major cause. Vacancy rates remain at less than 1% in Fresno. Without affordable housing, people find themselves with fewer options. It becomes harder to find housing near a place of work or in a safe area.

Another factor that contributes to homelessness is the lack of affordable healthcare. Healthcare is expensive, and many people are uninsured or underinsured.

This means spending large amounts of money on healthcare while struggling to pay for rent, food and utilities. It can also mean neglecting routine checkups and procedures, leading to higher medical costs in the future. One serious injury or accident could push an individual or family into homelessness.

We know that poverty is one of the most significant root causes of homelessness. Stagnant wages, unemployment, and high housing and healthcare costs all play into poverty. Being unable to afford essentials such as housing, food, education and more greatly increases a person’s or family’s risk. To address homelessness effectively, we must address poverty.

The lack of mental health and addiction treatment services contributes as well.

The connection between mental health, addiction and homelessness is clear. In the United States, around 30% of “chronically homeless” people have mental health conditions. In 2017, the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 38% of homeless people depend on alcohol and 26% depend on other substances.

Having a mental illness or addiction makes a person more vulnerable to homelessness and makes it more difficult to find permanent housing. A lack of stable housing also exacerbates mental health and addiction issues. Without treatment services, it’s difficult for someone to break the cycle.

Another major factor that is rarely discussed among elected leaders is racial inequality.

In the United States, racial minorities experience homelessness at a higher rate than the White population. According to research from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Black Americans are three times more likely to lose housing. Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Latinos and Native Americans are also minorities disproportionately affected. The reasons why are based in racial inequalities such as racial discrimination in housing and incarceration.

Domestic violence is another societal problem that increases the unhoused population.

Women and children are especially vulnerable to violence-triggered homelessness. To escape domestic violence, people will flee their homes without a plan. If they don’t have a place to stay, they can end up living in cars, shelters or the street.

Even for those who stay, the toll that domestic violence takes makes them more vulnerable to homelessness in the future. This is because trauma often leads to mental health issues and substance abuse.

Closely related to domestic violence, family conflict can also lead to homelessness. This is especially true for the LGBTQ+ community. Coming out is risky. Families can kick out the individual or make the home environment dangerous.

According to the True Colors Fund, 1.6 million young LGBTQ+ people end up homeless each year. This population is also at an increased risk for homelessness at a younger age.

Systemic failure is perhaps the greatest cause of homelessness in the United States. While homelessness can occur because of an individual’s or family’s circumstances, we cannot ignore the systemic failures.

Homelessness occurs when the government and society fail to identify and support people at risk of becoming unhoused.

We have failed in areas such as our criminal justice system, healthcare system, child welfare system and in the continuum of care approach, preventing a Housing First approach.

We have failed to address racial inequalities, increase wages and provide affordable housing.

We, the people, can change this record of failure by being active, demanding change from our elected leaders, and by building solidarity with other activists and movements.

You can also help this summer by donating and distributing water to our unhoused brothers and sisters. Visit the Project H2O Facebook page to get involved. Water is life!

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