Stepping outside in Arizona means feeling the desert sun seeping into your skin until the heat becomes so unbearable that you need to retreat into the shade or a cool, air-conditioned room.
But for some, these luxuries are inaccessible, leaving them victim to the ever-climbing temperatures.
From heat-retaining mobile home structures to a lack of air conditioning to homelessness, housing issues make communities more vulnerable to Arizona’s intense heat.
The state is also no stranger to skyrocketing housing prices that displace low-income people, forcing them to look for cheaper housing options, which may lack amenities that adequately protect residents from the heat.
Individuals facing housing instability are also more likely to suffer from the harmful effects of the heat. Excessive heat can worsen preexisting health conditions or cause new issues, like heatstroke and hyperthermia, which can be fatal.
In addition, the criminalization of homelessness only makes things worse when tents are swept, and unhoused people are forced to leave the shelters they have found. Besides a lack of shelter from the heat, people experiencing homelessness who are exposed to the asphalt in cities like Phoenix may experience extreme burns in mere seconds to minutes.
‘Nowhere for folks to go’
In 2022, Maricopa County Public Health reported 425 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County, which represents an increase of 25% from 2021. Of the individuals whose housing situation was known, over 56% were experiencing homelessness, which was 14 percentage points higher than in 2021.
“There’s nowhere for folks to go; there’s no escape,” said Richard Crews, the program director for Human Services Campus. “Many of us have air conditioners, pools, those comforts to escape the heat. If you’re experiencing homelessness, that’s just not the case.”
HSC is a collaboration of various social services aimed at helping people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County. Crews oversees various programs at the campus — such as its shelter, community outreach, and health and legal services. HSC provides day rooms and overnight shelter, a cool space with air conditioning, showers and cold water.
“We try to find everywhere that we can fit somebody to get them out of the heat,” Crews said.
HSC connects with local healthcare services like Circle the City, which provides medical technicians to care for unhoused individuals in hospitals, clinics, shelters and streets.
HSC also supports unhoused individuals charged with criminal offenses, which is more common among those experiencing homelessness due to its criminalization through policies like city bans on loitering and camping on the streets. The Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court, one of the legal services held at HSC’s resource center once per month, resolves minor, victimless misdemeanor offenses, like camping. In 2022, 134 cases and $152,996 in fines were resolved at the court.
Heat in the indoors
The Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU is a center that solves problems in Maricopa County related to communitywide topics, like homelessness, health and the environment, by building research-based tools and “advanc[ing] community resilience,” according to the KER website. In 2021, the center worked on a project examining the intersection between heat, health and housing.
“We discovered this gap in providing assistance and resources to people suffering disproportionately from the heat,” said Patricia Solis, the executive director of KER.
KER reported that despite mobile homes making up 5% of housing in Maricopa County, mobile home residents represented 29% of all indoor heat-related deaths between 2006 and 2019.
In 2019, a year marked by a record-breaking number of heat-related deaths, 38% of these deaths that occurred indoors in Maricopa County happened in mobile homes.
“If you want to have a dent in the heat crisis, look at the housing crisis and vice versa,” Solis said. “If you’re trying to address the housing crisis, do not forget that it is intimately related to how we experience heat.”
KER started researching how heat affects mobile homeowners in late 2018, according to Solis. Researchers worked with agencies, like the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, to record temperatures inside mobile homes and to conduct interviews and surveys about the residents’ health, income and living environment to identify common struggles and develop solutions, she said.
According to Elisha Charley, a graduate student studying urban planning and a former research assistant at KER, the biggest obstacle to dealing with the heat in mobile homes is their infrastructure.
Because mobile homes must be transportable, they can hold only a limited capacity, “so everything is much more lightweight, and insulations and cooling equipment are not as robust,” she said. “Those all played a massive factor in some of the issues [mobile homeowners] are experiencing.”
While some mobile homes are specifically designed to combat freezing temperatures, they generally aren’t built from materials that can withstand the brutal Arizona heat, Charley said.
Therefore, mobile home residents are often forced to piece together their own solutions.
Charley said most of the residents she interviewed did “a good job” of insulating their mobile homes by creating shade and preventing heat from entering through their windows. Many owners also cool their mobile homes by adding more insulation or running fans to circulate air.
However, insulating a mobile home can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the home and the form of insulation being installed. Moreover, running additional cooling mechanisms, like fans, can rack up a high utility bill. In fact, utilities in mobile homes can cost up to 50% more than those in site-built homes of a similar size and age, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
With almost 20% of mobile home households in Maricopa County living under the poverty line, these additional costs can be insurmountable barriers to having a safe home to live in during the brutal Arizona summers.
Many residents in the Phoenix area escape the heat by going to public places, like malls and libraries, or just leaving Phoenix altogether, said Kristi Eustice, a senior research analyst at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Nevertheless, heat in Phoenix is only becoming more and more extreme, and all sectors of the community are being impacted.
The Morrison Institute is an organization that researches and analyzes policies affecting the public, like housing affordability, water supply and voting in Arizona.
In August 2021, the institute released a report on community concerns about extreme heat, with a focus on state and local policies that target heat-related issues, including housing security, energy use and public health.
“Although there were quite a few policies that address the issues that community members were discussing, there seemed to be a lack of awareness about many of the things that could help them specifically,” Eustice said.
Community members interviewed by the institute said they struggled with managing heat-related challenges due to their limited budget for utilities. Eustice said those interviewed couldn’t afford to run their air conditioning during peak utility hours, so they “just had to suffer it out.”
“We’re seeing a trend where summers are just continuing to get hotter,” she said. “We’re seeing more people die of heat illness. Those trends are increasing each year, so we can imagine what a recipe for disaster this creates.”
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.
This story is part of The Hot Issue, which was released on Oct. 4, 2023. See the entire publication here.