Ruta Smith file photo

It’s another unexpected consequence of the coronavirus pandemic: Charleston’s infamous, sweltering heat is now nearly inescapable for those relying on public spaces for air conditioning access.

“It’s a concern that needs to be talked about,” Uplift Charleston organizer Aaron Comstock said. “I’m praying every day (homeless people and those without air conditioning) have a breeze where they’re at, that they can go somewhere in the air conditioning.”

A rise in evictions nationwide is expected in the coming months as pandemic-related layoffs continue and unemployment insurance is set to decrease July 31, and federal protections against some evictions have expired. And that could mean more homeless people who are unable to access cooled spaces.

“You’re going to see a rise in homelessness,” Comstock said, adding that Charleston’s homeless population is already increasing in number. “Once these protections start dwindling, people are going to be evicted more. People will lose their housing.”

More than books

Public libraries have been a place of refuge for homeless people or people without air conditioning in the South.

Charleston County Public Library Deputy Director of Innovation Natalie Hauff said libraries are known to be unofficial cooling spots for the homeless.

“Generally, we know we do serve a population and that speaks to our accessibility. We always promote that we are open to everyone,” Hauff said. “Libraries are such an open space and we are all about accessibility so it pains us that we can’t have the entire community inside (right now during the pandemic).”

Charleston County libraries began limited curbside service beginning June 8, but branches remain closed otherwise.

“It could be awhile before we could be open like we used to be,” Hauff said. “As far as public space and that kind of relief from the heat, unfortunately, the library isn’t going to be a place we can have that (right now).”

One80 Place Director of Development Marco Corona said homeless people also find unofficial cooling centers at fast food diners, big box retailers and others.

“We know that individuals have a way to figure it out, but we understand the pandemic has restricted access to a lot of those buildings,” Corona said.

The danger from heat

Medical University of South Carolina pediatric emergency medicine professor Benjamin Jackson said the elderly and children are at the most risk when the heat index is at 100 degrees or higher. But even healthy people exposed to high heat and exertion can develop heat illness, he said.

“It’s important (to access a cool area). And if you’re in more of an inner city, urban environment you don’t have access to nice shade and a breeze,” Jackson said. “It is a legitimate concern.”

Jackson said avoiding heat illness includes staying hydrated, resting, escaping to cooler environments, limiting exposure during the hottest part of the day (when your shadow is shorter than you are tall), and wearing lightweight and light-colored clothing.

Charleston County Emergency Management Services Division Chief Carl Fehr said that the concern for heat illness is an issue every summer.

“We’re prepared to treat anyone at any time,” he said. “We encourage everybody to check on anyone vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.”

Fehr said the best way to treat heat illness is to catch it early and get the person cooled off quickly either in air conditioning or shade.

Heat-related illness calls average 120 to 150 per day from July to September, Fehr said. More than 600 people in the United States die from extreme heat every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In South Carolina, 17 died in 2018 from heat, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

As the climate warms, heat in urban centers and heat in areas with high poverty have become an increased concern among scientists worried about heat deaths.

Working on solutions

Meanwhile, at One80 Place, the focus remains on finding housing for those without.

“Our best effort, what we feel is the best solution, is getting people rehoused with temporary financial assistance,” Corona said.

Comstock said now is the time for Charleston’s churches to open their doors to help people stay cool this summer, and for nonprofits to offer air conditioning units for low-income households.

Already, homeless people have been identified as vulnerable for contracting COVID-19 given their communal living, limited access to hand washing, and potential for underlying health conditions.

“The most vulnerable are the homeless people,” Comstock said.

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