Axton Sharpe and Ryan Lawson sat among the unsanctioned tent camps lining the sidewalk about a block from the State Capitol on a 95-degree day earlier this month, explaining how they deal with Denver’s oppressive summer heat.
“Man, it’s awful, just awful,” Sharpe, 53, said from under the shade of his makeshift tarp roof. “You see here, we’ve got no air conditioning or nothing like that. We just hope and pray that each day won’t be as hot as the last.”
Sharpe, originally a resident of Green Bay, Wisconsin, said he came to Denver in 1998 to get away from the cold — though now he sees the irony in that.
“I don’t miss the cold, but I also can’t stand this heat. It gets crazy hot on the pavement here, so you’ll notice a lot of folks go down to the river to try and keep cool,” Sharpe said.
Concern about water supply, crop yield, drought and wildfire conditions were underscored in Colorado after the National Weather Service declared last month Denver’s second-hottest July on record in the past 150 years.
The sweltering heat affects almost everyone, but those who are unable to seek air-conditioned refuge indoors are having a harder time adjusting.
The number of people experiencing homelessness across metro Denver has increased by roughly 800 people, or 12.8%, since January 2020, according to data from the first phase of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s annual point-in-time count for 2022.
And as the homeless population has grown, temperatures in the United States have been rising, climbing about 0.32 degrees to 0.55 degrees per decade since 1979, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Peter Goble, a climatologist at Colorado State University, is one of many who attribute the rising temperatures across Colorado, the nation and the world to the effects of climate change.
“We are seeing warmer summers with more regular heat waves in Colorado,” he said. “The last summer with below 20th-century average temperatures was 2009. A streak of 13 warmer-than-average summers in a row would be highly improbable without a warming trend. While climate change is not the only ingredient necessary to produce a heat wave, it is an integral part of the explanation of what we’ve seen in recent summers,”
Climate change is referred to as a “threat multiplier,” meaning that it worsens other issues. As Denver’s unhoused population continues to grow, the warming climate is helping to deteriorate the humanitarian situation on the streets.
“You know it’s bad when it’s too hot to even panhandle,” Lawson said with a laugh.
Lawson, 61, said he moved from Phoenix to Denver in 2019. Lawson and Sharpe said they met on the streets of Denver and have remained friends ever since.
“It is good to have Axton around, it is, but we’re getting to be old men,” Lawson said. “Old men are supposed to sit inside where it’s nice and cool and air-conditioned. Sleeping out here in this heat is almost impossible. It isn’t pleasant.”
Baylee Deleon, 31, said she spends most of her time near Denver’s Confluence Park, where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River come together near Lower Downtown.
“At night I can cool off,” she said. “But, really, I like it here just because I can get something to drink if I really need.”
Deleon was joined by her border collie Sadie. She said Sadie doesn’t get enough to drink, and amid the heat, she feels the dog needs to be near the water.
“Folks are pretty generous, I guess. You know, they give you bottled water sometimes,” Deleon said. “When it gets this hot, though, man, is it hard to stay hydrated. We just can’t get enough to drink, which is why we like to be near the water.”
While the river water was no problem for her dog, Deleon said she got “pretty sick” the first week she began drinking from the river.
“I sometimes will go and find a drinking fountain or something, but I’ve got all my stuff, and Sadie is here, so I try not to go too far from the river,” Deleon said. “My stomach is used to the water now, so it’s no problem.”
According to an EPA document about climate change in Colorado, higher temperatures are amplified in urban settings as paved surfaces retain more heat. Those most vulnerable to the heat, the EPA said, are children, the elderly, the sick and the poor.
Simmons Perry, 23, said her strategy of keeping cool was to try to acquire ice, umbrellas and plenty of water, although she admitted that “umbrellas only work sometimes. It’s too hot.”
Both the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have said that as climate change worsens, the more difficult it will become to maintain clean air.
According to the EPA, this is because rising temperatures increase the formation of ground-level ozone, a major contributor to smog. Ozone aggravates lung diseases like asthma while increasing the chance of premature death from lung and heart disease.
A pair of friends in a van in the parking lot of the Salvation Army Crossroads Center underscored concern about the health issues from living outside during record heat.
“If it gets any hotter than this, we’ll all be out here running around on fire,” Dave Castleberry, 60, said. “I am worried about the future of people, not just homeless people. You can feel it, every year, it’s getting hotter.”
Castleberry’s friend, Xea Landers, has lived in Denver her entire life and noted the gradual shift in Denver’s climate over the years.
“When I was a kid, we’d get rain all the time in the summers. Now, the climate has changed quite a bit. I don’t know what it is, but it’s odd. This has definitely been the hottest summer in a while, though,” Landers, 40, said. “It worries me quite a bit.”
Landers was fanning herself from inside her van. She said she’s one of the “lucky ones,” because at least she has a vehicle to live in.
To deal with the heat, Landers said water, coolers, fans and ice are important, though not always accessible.
“Since I live out of my vehicle, I can use air conditioning. I use my air conditioner constantly until it just stops working,” Landers said. “It’s uncomfortable. Constantly uncomfortable. It’s also a little bit unsanitary; a lot of flies, a lot of bacteria, a lot of nasty (expletive) you don’t want.”
Hanna Wyatt, 34, from Baltimore, was outside Union Station on July 13 when the high in Denver reached 99 degrees. She’s trying to save enough money to travel to Baltimore to be with her sister, a task she said has been complicated by her struggle to break a heroin addiction.
“I want to get out of Denver. It’s not because I want to get out of the heat or anything, I just think I can get clean if I’m with my sister,” Wyatt said. “You hear a lot of people out here saying that they want out of Denver because of how hot it gets, but then it’s like, where would they go? Everywhere is hot. Or getting hot.”
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