By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
If you live in New York City, you’re familiar with those days when the summer heat is so oppressive that it’s hard to be outdoors. These extreme temperatures can be deadly; according to the city’s Heat-Related Mortality Report, an estimated 370 New Yorkers die prematurely because of hot weather each summer.
Shams DaBaron, an advocate for the homeless who was once in that situation himself, remembers scorching hot summer days when his only choice to seek relief would be to seek out ever-moving shade.
“Unfortunately [I would fall asleep] and forget the bench gets a lot of sunlight. A lot of times, I would wake up and feel like I was having heat stroke,” says DaBaron, who is also known as ‘Da Homeless Hero.”
When NYC experiences a heat wave, a period of abnormally hot weather, an emergency plan called ‘Code Red’ goes into effect, during which shelters open their doors and outreach teams canvass the city, encouraging the unhoused to accept transportation to shelters. But for many, including DaBaron, going to the shelter isn’t a better option.
“Unfortunately, individuals have not had great experiences being connected to shelters or drop-in centers and they choose, based on their experience, to stay out in the streets,” says Tina Fernandez, executive director of Shower Power, an organization that provides free showers to the homeless. “For them, the decision to be out on the street was a lot safer than being in an environment that was not.”
DaBaron, for one, avoided shelters after witnessing instances of beatins, robberies, stabbings, and rape in them. For homeless New Yorkers, other areas of refuge like cooling centers, coffee shops or restaurants may be more appealing options. But in these places they are often met with dirty looks and discrimination.
“The normal places people would go [to cool off] were shut off to us, like Starbucks or McDonald’s,” DaBaron says. “You can’t go to sit down at those places, but people with wallets can. [Employees] would say ‘You can’t stay here long’ or ‘If you can’t buy anything, you can’t stay.”
And cooling centers, Da Baron says, can be hard to locate when you don’t have a phone and aren’t connected to the internet. His main priority during those hot days was to stay hydrated and fed. When he wasn’t looking for food, DaBaron would ride the air-conditioned subway back and forth. However, following the release of Mayor Eric Adams Subway Safety Plan earlier this year, homeless people riding the subway will now be removed and redirected to shelters and safe havens.
Even at cooling centers, not everyone feels comfortable. Diana, who is currently homeless, generally avoids cooling shelters.
“I usually try to stay away from those. This is because I don’t want to infringe. [I’ve felt] like an inconvenience and I try to stay outside,” she says. “Generally, I’d rather sit by the river. But if it’s scorching hot and my knee is burning through my pants [then I’ll go].”
Even if homeless people would like to drop into a cooling center, they may not be able to locate one, especially without access to the internet.
“It would normally happen through word of mouth or via an outreach worker that invites the individual to the cooling center,” Fernandez says. “The information needs to be easily dispersed. If the information is not accessible to homeless individuals, they may not know where to go or the hours for it.”
While DaBaron is no longer homeless, he’ll never forget what it felt like to be unhoused during the brutal summer heat.
“It was horrible,” he says. “I remember going to a soup kitchen and I only used to drink water. I ate the food, but I would mostly drink water, cups and cups of water. It was almost like living in a desert.”
Diana urges New Yorkers to be more compassionate when they encounter a homeless person.
“They didn’t hurt you, they haven’t done anything to you,” she says. “You can give them cold water, you can give them a meal. [It would be great] to open up more places to shower in the heat because there are quite a few of us [who need it].”
What you can do
Staying cool and hydrated are the most important things to do during a heat wave, but can be challenging for the unhoused.
- Hand out water. One cold water bottle on a hot day can go a long way. One tip from a neighbor is to freeze the bottles before handing them out.
- Provide information. If you know of one, consider telling a homeless person about the nearest cooling center (or inclusive cooling space like a library). You can also inform the homeless of services like Shower Power.
- Volunteer with organizations that are already helping homeless individuals. Shower Power is a great place to start; it operates Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Find out more about how you can volunteer here.
- Most importantly, be kind. “People experiencing homelessness are human,” Fernandez says. “They are New Yorkers. They deserve respect and dignity like anybody else. Everyone has a journey and a story; you never know what life will bring you at any given point. Have compassion and give some respect and dignity.”