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  • Writer's pictureSophia Hidalgo

The Health of the Homeless: A Climate Change Problem

This article provides an insight into the health struggles that homeless Californians are facing. Their lack of housing and healthcare access is rooted in social and economic inequity. Find out more below about how environmental disasters are showing how dire their situation is.

With one of the largest homeless populations in the United States, California is facing a crisis. Each year as the effects of climate change become more prevalent, nearly a quarter of the US’ homeless population will have to face the burden. In 2019 alone, 108,432 residents found themselves without a roof over their head. In major cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, this number is expected to grow by unprecedented amounts. More so, the effects of climate change are proving to be a devastating problem for these residents. Battling existing health conditions, many homeless Californians will be forced to face intensified struggles due to the extreme environment.

The division in equity among high-standing citizens and the homeless is clear. As the most exposed citizens to the outside world, the homeless have the smallest carbon footprints yet face the highest burden of climate change effects. The disproportionate impact on their mental, physical, and emotional health is rarely discussed. While some literature may reference it, their situation is often not covered and is virtually disregarded in existing works.

Evidently, their health struggle is rooted in past environmental disasters; one being the Camp Fire of Butte County in 2018. Raging across Northern California and burning 153,000 acres, it was named one of the most destructive in the state’s history. It displaced thousands of people and created temporary tent cities. Those without a home faced a number of stressors that had not been previously accounted for due to the degrading air quality. Stressors included a number of health risks like asthma, cardiac arrests, respiratory infections, and mental health conditions. However, those within the immediate area were not the only ones whose well-being was threatened. Populations well beyond the origin of the fire were soon facing consequences. The wildfire smoke that blanketed northern California for 11 days led to emergency measures called into action by San Francisco city officials. Their aim was to protect the homeless from the direct health risks. Efforts were focused on shielding residents from contaminants in the smoke such as soot. Up to this day, the full health toll from the Camp Fire remains unknown.

Photo by Jessica Christain for The Chronicle. A temporary tent city in the parking lot of a Walmart in Chico, CA taken November 14, 2018, for people displaced by the 2018 Camp Fire.

Beyond the fires, the increasing heat of southern California summers is setting record-breaking temperatures. More recently, the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County was taken this year at a sweltering 121 degrees. In fact, this is a direct consequence of the accelerating warming trend. The average California summer temperature is rising three times faster from 1975 to the present than from 1895 to the present. Homeless populations in areas such as Downtown Los Angeles are one of the many impacted by the excruciating effects. Lacking proper shelter, numerous people are unable to protect themselves from the health risks of the heat. For example, the environment that surrounds a homeless individual plays a large part in their health status. Many lack substantial tree cover, green space, or are residing on heat-absorbing surfaces such as asphalt. Such is the case for dense populations within urban areas, with 68% of homeless people in California living on the streets. Additionally, their socioeconomic status poses problems ranging from minor illnesses to deadly conditions. A few examples are heat stroke, higher rates of chronic disease, and a low mental health status.

In California, the shortage of affordable housing is intensifying the homeless crisis. As a state with one of the highest housing costs in the nation, the amount of shelters for the homeless is just not enough. As climate change leads to more natural disasters, the Center for American Progress states that extreme weather is an “affordable housing crisis multiplier.” In order to ensure a brighter future for these vulnerable populations, policymakers and communities must work together to help bridge connections. Both sides must collaborate to create solutions that ensure the progress of climate change and equity.

The health status of homeless Californians is a surmountable issue. Rooted in social and economic injustice, they face higher rates of disease and exposure to the elements than the average citizen. In order to combat these problems, we must come together and find solutions to climate change.

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