It’s noon, and it’s over 100 degrees in Washington. The media and others have endlessly repeated their solid, survive-the-heat advice: Stay inside, preferably near air conditioning, and drink lots of water. Good advice, unless you can’t get or stay inside or consistently access fresh water — in other words, if you’re homeless.
You can’t visit or live in the nation’s capital without recognizing that homelessness is an enormous problem here. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are more than 6,000 homeless men, women and children in the District (of Columbia) and well over 25,000 homeless people in the District, Maryland and Virginia combined. In 2009, a third of the District’s homeless could be categorized as experiencing “chronic homelessness,” meaning that for reasons including disability and mental illness, they had been homeless repeatedly or for long periods. Although only some of them were completely “unsheltered,” many shelters or transitional housing facilities don’t allow occupants to return during the day. Here in Washington, the homeless can often be found in parks, on sidewalks and in alleys during the day.But let’s stand back from the panoramic view of homelessness in the capital, however troubling. This day is headed toward 105 degrees, and the heat index (a measure of how hot it feels) will surpass 115. Today and tomorrow and for as long as deadly heat pervades Washington and large parts of the country, homelessness isn’t a troubling phenomenon; it’s a life-and-death situation.