This summer, Linda Webb and her boyfriend, Troy, have been driving in their weathered Chrysler to Walmart just to stand in the freezer aisle and cool off. The journey uses gas money they don’t have, but it’s been worth it to get out of the 100-degree weather.
“The heat’s been really crazy, really horrible,” she said. “Sometimes we just can’t handle the heat anymore, and we have to drive anywhere. We’re lucky we even have a car.” But recently their car broke down, leaving them to try to make the best of whatever shade they can find.
Webb lives downtown just off Interstate 69, at an encampment that straddles Hamilton Street with about 60 other unhoused individuals and their dogs. For most of the day, the shadows provided by the overpass give the 34-year-old only a small sense of relief from the heat. Some of the residents have tiny, battery-powered fans, and others hydrate with water or Gatorade. Webb tries to stay cool in just a tank top, leggings and a pair of plastic sunglasses – her hair shaved at the sides and pulled into a tight ponytail. Her sister, Sara, is wearing a similar outfit, and Troy is shirtless, sitting on a foldout chair in the shade.
For all Houstonians, this summer’s heat wave has been miserable. But for Webb and everyone else living without permanent shelter, it’s been unrelentingly excruciating.
Over 3,000 people in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are experiencing homelessness, according to 2023 data from the Coalition for the Homeless, down 18 percent from last year. While Houston has been praised in the national media for its approach to decreasing homelessness in the past few years through finding permanent housing, this summer has amplified the life-threatening risks the weather has posed for those still without shelter.
A new report from the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office shows that at least 15 people have suffered “heat-related deaths” this year, which is more than any of the five prior years when those records were collected – and August isn’t over.
Every summer, unhoused individuals come frighteningly close to joining that list: They may suffer heat stroke, hyperthermia, or pass out from dehydration. If people aren’t aware of how dehydrated they are, they can get sick quickly, and normally, those who are more vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with disabilities, are most susceptible to the heat.
Webb said that in early July an unhoused friend of hers died from heat stroke. And just last week, Webb went to Memorial Hermann Hospital to be treated for severe dehydration.
Where to get help
There are some resources available for unsheltered Houstonians, including cooling centers that the city opened this summer to give residents a break.
The city’s homeless outreach team enlists Houston police officers and mental health caseworkers through the police department’s mental health division. Officers will work on individual solutions for unhoused individuals with the ultimate goal of finding them permanent housing.
Similarly, nonprofit organizations like the Coalition for the Homeless and Star of Hope, a Christian organization, will reach out to unhoused people daily to find the best way to support them. During the hottest hours, this means delivering cold water bottles, socks and packets of food to those experiencing homelessness. Both organizations’ leadership said their goal is to get people into permanent housing.
“It’s a little cooler under the overpasses, sometimes even 10 degrees cooler, which helps,” said Ray Walker, an outreach case manager for Star of Hope. “A lot of the people are sleeping outside their tents a lot, or doing what they need to get done earlier in the morning before the heat of the day.”
Other unhoused people do as Webb has in the past and try to find ways to alleviate the heat on their own, by driving to Walmart, for example, or sitting in the downtown public library during the hottest hours.
In more rural counties, Fort Bend and Montgomery for example, resources such as cooling centers, libraries and homeless services are harder to find than in Harris County. To make up for that, nonprofit outreach teams will voyage farther to provide support.
At the encampment where Webb stays – the last surviving one in Houston following the city’s push to close all large encampments by the end of the year – residents there are used to outreach workers coming and going. When a van touting the name “Star of Hope” rolls in, people quickly walk over for ice water and care packages.
Ed Dewey, a 55-year-old unhoused man, said it’s hard to go to cooling centers or libraries because he has two dogs and seven cats to take care of, and he said he doesn’t feel safe leaving them behind in the heat.
“We wet ourselves down with water all the time, wearing wet rags around our necks,” Dewey said. “With new batteries, our little fans can last about 8 to 10 hours, which is nice when it’s really hot.”
Mike Nichols, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, said the situation is critical. “I definitely have a sense of urgency here because of the heat,” he said, adding, “We want to make sure the most vulnerable people get housed first and out of the heat.”
Webb is currently on a list for permanent housing in Houston. She has been homeless for about a year, waiting in the heat for housing to become available. Her sister Sara is waiting on the list too. In some cases, individuals can be placed in housing in two months, but the process depends on the individual and their situation, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
The hope that patience will lead to a permanent home helps Webb endure the heat. “We’ve just been trying to find the AC for now,” Webb said. “If not, we’ll sit in the shade all day and wait it out. It’s all a waiting game.”