What comes to mind when you think about summer? I bet the answer includes some variation of vacations and water parks, time with family, or being away from school and work even for the briefest of time. For guests at First Street Methodist Mission, summer means trying to survive the elements that those of us who live in homes have no need to think about. Our guests do not get to escape the heat in an air-conditioned home, or eat popsicles on the porch with their family. They do not visit water parks or go on vacation. They survive. For months on end, they survive the brutal temperatures that reach 100 degrees and beyond while living in a tent. They survive wearing the same sweaty, filthy socks that never seem to dry in our humid climate, walking miles per day just to get a bite to eat and something to drink. They survive the constant sun from 6:00 am until 9:00 pm without shelter or sunscreen. They survive heatstroke from a lack of clean, cold water. They survive.
People who live outside during our hottest months — June, July, and August — suffer many adverse health effects. Their lack of access to medical care, specifically preventive care, contributes to chronic health conditions, which leads to early death rates among the homeless. Research shows that the average life expectancy of a rough sleeper is only about 50 years old. Plus, according to WebMD, they are likely to suffer from:
- Heat rash or cramps
- Heat edema
- Heat tetany
- Heat syncope
- Heat exhaustion
Additional research in a Committee Opinion from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists indicated that unmet health needs are a major concern for homeless individuals, with 73 percent reporting at least one. Chronic conditions, such as asthma, anemia, chronic bronchitis, hypertension, and ulcers, make up approximately one-third of conditions reported by this population. In one study, people experiencing homelessness reported five reasons they did not access health care:
- Social triaging
- Being stigmatized for being homeless
- Lack of care through the health system
- Disrespectful treatment
- Feeling ignored by health care providers
For these reasons, as well as the search for basic needs taking precedence, more than half of people experiencing homelessness do not access health care on a regular basis.
One day Sam, a longtime visitor at First Street Methodist Mission, was sunburned so badly that his face had blistered to the point of deformity — leaving him unrecognizable. Still smiling, he greeted me and asked about my weekend. I could not believe his strength as he endured blazing sunlight day after day without reprieve. It was the middle of the summer, and it was a hot one. The Mission gave him sunscreen, an extra shirt to shield himself from the sun, and a bus pass to go to JPS to receive medical care.
Another summer day Charlotte, a woman in her early 30s, came limping into the Mission. She explained that she had been walking for miles in ill-fitting shoes, trying to get some food, and her socks were wet. The Mission was able to give her some foot powder. In the middle of our service area, Charlotte took off her shoes and socks to show me a sight I do not think I will ever forget. The stench was unbearable, and when I looked at her feet I saw chunks peeling off and withered skin turned white with moisture. She cried when her feet felt the air and asked for clean socks. When she got the socks she was so grateful for them that she grabbed my hand and blessed me.
First Street Methodist Mission provides sack lunches, clothing, and laundry services year-round, and during the hottest months the Mission offers Room in the Inn.
We provide our guests with a cool place to sit and rest, fellowship, acceptance, and a listening ear. Volunteers at the Mission are always ready to give people their attention and love. Our volunteers know guest stories, both heartbreaking and joyful, and will cry tears of sorrow and joy with them. They accept each individual where they are in life, because in the end our volunteers are just as blessed by serving as they are a blessing to others through their service.
The problem is real, but so is the Mission. Please keep our guests and volunteers in your prayers this summer.
Assistant Director of FSMM