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Summer temperatures create health hazards for those at Modesto homeless encampment

Modesto tent campers find ways to stay cool during summer heat

Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter residents
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Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter residents

Virginia Van Pelt takes more than a dozen medications every day for ailments ranging from seizures to a heart condition. But as the sun rises and eventually shines on her tent at the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter at Ninth Street and Morton Boulevard, those medications become detrimental to her health.

The summer temperatures have caused her seizures to worsen, Van Pelt said.

“The environment here will kill me,” Van Pelt said. “The heat makes it harder, but Doug helped me.”

Van Pelt’s tent was moved from a spot exposed to the harsh sun to a location in the shade, further under the Ninth Street bridge. The move was made after Stanislaus County’s Doug Holcomb, the operations manager for the shelter, and others who saw Van Pelt struggling in the heat.

“We noticed Virginia’s health really took a downturn on especially hot days, and we realized her tent is just right in the sun. So we knew she had to be moved,” Holcomb said.

The move will drastically change the temperature in her tent, Holcomb said, keeping her cooler and more comfortable.

Van Pelt is one of many experiencing adverse effects from the summer heat at the temporary shelter, which began accepting people who are otherwise homeless in late February after a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in September of 2018. The ruling, which was recently upheld, overturned a Boise, Idaho, district court decision that had allowed for homeless people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property, even when other options were not available.

Stanislaus County contracted with the nonprofit Turning Point to provide services at the site.

“There are so many things that we want our folks to be doing out here to change their circumstances to get housing or to get into something that’s going to end their homelessness,” said Christina Kenney, program director from Turning Point. “But our pockets of time become shorter during the really hot weather.”

The temporary shelter contains just over 300 tents housing approximately 408 people, about 25% of the homeless population in Stanislaus County. Many of those within the shelter have caseworkers assigned to help push them toward a better living situation — out of the tents and out of the heat.

Kenney said the heat may give people more motivation to find housing or better accommodations.

“We can’t really create an infrastructure here because we would be setting folks up to depend on that here,” she said. “When folks are unhappy or uncomfortable in the tents during the day or at nighttime, we always go back to asking if they have better options.”

Regardless, Kenney, Holcomb and their respective teams are working on creating a safer — and cooler — environment. From allowing residents to string tarps from their tents for additional shade to receiving donations for chest freezers, there are several ways people are trying to beat the heat.

The site has water spigots available for use as well as a golf cart loaded with water that is driven around regularly to stress the importance of staying hydrated. Many also use small solar panels or generators to plug in fans.

Despite the efforts, though, for those like Van Pelt with several medical conditions and medications that react adversely in the heat, the move from a spot in the sun to a spot in the shade can make a world of difference.

“Many psychiatric medications interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature,” Julie Vaishampayan, the public health officer from Stanislaus County Health Services Agency, said in an email statement. She also noted that the county posted advisories at the shelter cautioning homeless people to avoid cocaine and meth, as they raise body temperature, as well as alcohol and caffeine, as they dehydrate the body.

A common medication among those living at the shelter is methadone, Kenney said, which helps people reduce or quit their use of opiates and narcotic pain medicines. But methadone also reduces the body’s ability to sweat, creating a problem for those exposed to the heat.

So, caseworkers and others at the shelter monitor those they know are on methadone or similar medications. They also attempt to identify individuals who also may be at risk in the heat.

“It’s those on methadone and other medications, but also the older folks and folks with disabilities,” Holcomb said. “Turning Point has really been proactive in trying to determine who’s the most fragile that is out here and making sure they’re in an area that gets at least partial shade, if not shade all day long.”

But for those like Van Pelt, a move to the shade is just one small step to better living conditions.

“I want to be moving forward,” she said. “All I know is that the next space in the shade is the next step for me.”

Mackenzie Shuman is a summer news intern for The Modesto Bee. She originally hails from Colorado Springs, Colorado, but goes to school at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication where she is studying Journalism with a minor in Political Science.
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