A wave of cool air hits a mom and her young daughter as they walk through the doors of Pillars Adult & Family Shelter. Although they are dressed for the heat, sweat drips down their faces as they ask the front desk volunteer for some water. She points toward a sink with some cups along the side and tells them to help themselves. They breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy some water next to other clients talking to one another and some staff members, all of them avoiding the hot temperatures outside.
The clients change over time, but this is what long-time Pillars volunteer, Mary Jo, has come to expect on hot summer days: a little bit more conversation and community in the Pillars Adult & Family Shelter lobby as clients stick around longer to stay cool.
While Wisconsin is known for its long, cold winters, the short spurts of extreme heat in the summer months can also be dangerous for people experiencing homelessness. Being unsheltered during this weather can leave people vulnerable to the elements and at risk for medical emergencies like dehydration and heat stroke. Staff at Pillars take extra steps to ensure the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness when the temperature and humidity rises.
Reaching the people who need help the most
The Pillars Street Outreach team goes out into the community every single day to identify and provide resources to people experiencing homelessness. Emily carries bottles of water to hand out to the people she meets, and she packs extra during the summer months. Her goal is to keep people living outside hydrated, even giving out multiple bottles per person before the weekend and other long stretches where she might be out of contact.
The route Emily walks stays relatively unchanged despite the hot temperature. She does, however, emphasize known hangouts under local bridges or in wooded areas where people might need water or other resources. She does a quick evaluation for signs of dehydration and heat stroke before asking them if they have anywhere to go to escape the heat.
A refuge during the day
Pillars Resource Center served 52 people on Tuesday as the feel-like temperature outside in Appleton peaked at around 100 degrees. That’s an increase of more than 20% in the amount of people served at Pillars Resource Center compared to the average day. Those 52 people enjoyed the safety and relief of shelter, air conditioning, and water, if only for a few hours.
Emily calls people experiencing homelessness resourceful. Many of them identify places to go during extreme temperatures like Pillars Resource Center. This summer is harder for some, though, with the temporary closure of Appleton Public Library. It is a favorite spot for people experiencing homelessness to hang out, read a good book, or maybe browse the internet. Other spots like Fox River Mall are more inaccessible and make for a dangerously long walk in the heat without a bus pass. Pillars Resource Center hopes to fill some of those gaps on weekdays from 8:30am to 4pm.
Educating tenants on ways to beat the heat
Pillars serves hundreds of individuals and families each year in supportive housing programs. Those programs require clients to participate in case management to make goals, learn life skills and work toward more stable housing. Part of that case management in the summer months includes education about keeping windows and shades closed during the day and opening them when the temperature cools down, running fans and air conditioning units when available, going somewhere to cool down, etc.
Not every unit Pillars owns and operates comes with air conditioning, but it is a must for some clients with trouble breathing and other health issues. “Those are typically the cases where we look for donated AC units to try and make sure nobody is seriously harmed during the high temperatures,” said Tara Prahl, Director of Supportive Services.
What can you do to help?
Donations of bottled water are always welcome and needed during the summer months. All Pillars sites and locations are stocked with bottles to hand out to clients and others experiencing homelessness in the community.
Like the extreme cold, extreme heat can make homelessness more invisible. Friends and family of people experiencing homelessness are more inclined to open their homes and extend temporary invitations to stay until the heat subsides. Don’t buy into out of sight, out of mind. Hundreds of your neighbors are without shelter or stable housing. Consider joining Pillars to provide shelter, support, and solutions through financial donations, volunteering, or buying items from our monthly wish list. Together we can make a positive difference in the lives of those around us.