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Phoenix's first 24/7 cooling center to open in an old library cafe after deadly 2023 heat

In the northwest corner of the Burton Barr Library building in downtown Phoenix, there’s a little room that used to bew a cafe. It’s been mothballed since flood damage shut down the library for several months back in 2017. So this side entrance to the building hasn’t been used by the public in years. But from May 1 until Sept. 30, these doors will be unlocked 24/7. The space will serve as the city’s first-ever, 24-hour site for heat relief.

“It's an underutilized space, it hasn’t been utilized in quite some time,” said Rachel Milne, director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions, looking around the former cafe. “We’re going to be taking away some of these countertops and really just making it a welcoming place with some chairs and tables.”

There won’t be beds in here, Milne says — it’s not meant as a shelter. And visitors who arrive after-hours won’t have access to the main part of the library.

But the round-the-clock heat respite center will have free bottled water, bathrooms and enough space for about 50 people at a time to sit in the air conditioning. It will be staffed by security guards and trained navigators who can connect visitors with whatever services they might need.

“Are they possibly experiencing homelessness? Did their air conditioning go out at their home, and they’re just looking for a cool place to be?” Milne said.

Last summer was Phoenix’s hottest ever. Temperatures hit 110 degrees or higher on 55 days — a record. That relentless heat  led to an unprecedented 645 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County — a 52% increase from the previous year’s record. As the  county-wide Heat Relief Network prepares to launch again May 1, county and city officials are making some changes they hope will protect more people this year.

Offering a 24-hour respite center is one of the key updates to Phoenix’s Heat Response Plan in 2024.

Across Maricopa County for decades, public libraries have been some of the most important flagships in the seasonal Heat Relief Network. They’re well known, welcoming spaces that are cool and quiet.

“Anyone can come in, we supply them with water, it’s a safe place to be,” Milne said, “But our libraries close, for the most part, at 5 p.m.”

In summer, 5 p.m. can be the hottest part of the day. And temperatures might not cool off much after the sun sets. Last summer, Phoenix recorded  some of the hottest overnight temperatures ever. Most nights in July never dropped out of the 90s.

David Hondula, director of Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation said looking back over last summer’s data, there was a very obvious gap when it came to the hours of operation at most public heat relief sites.

“About a third of the heat-related 911 calls in the city of Phoenix occurred at a time when we haven’t had a cooling center open, historically,” Hondula said. “People are suffering during these times.”

He said a lot of those 911 calls for heat-related emergencies came from the neighborhood right around Burton Barr Library.

"About a third of the heat-related 911 calls in the city of Phoenix occurred at a time when we haven’t had a cooling center open, historically. People are suffering during these times." — David Hondula, Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation

The rapid rise of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County over the past decade has coincided with an increase in metro Phoenix’s homeless population. Hondula said when people — especially those without shelter — never get a chance to cool off, it can severely stress the body.

He’s hopeful that offering access to air conditioning at all hours in the center of the city could make a big public-health impact.

“I think we might see fewer 911 calls in those overnight and extended hours, but I think we might even see fewer 911 calls the next morning or the next afternoon,” Hondula said.

In addition to this 24-hour site, the city plans to offer overnight respite hours at its Senior Opportunities West Center in South Phoenix. The city also plans to keep its Cholla, Harmon and Yucca library branches open until 10 p.m. throughout the summer.

This year’s new focus on keeping cooling centers open later goes beyond just Phoenix — it's a major component of Maricopa County’s 2024 heat plans, too.

“People don’t stop being hot at 5 p.m.,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

Sunenshine's department is providing some of the funding for the Burton Barr Library 24-hour site, and it’s backing other sites, too.

“Our goal is to have at least one cooling or respite center in every part of the county that is open until 7 p.m., and that there is some heat relief on every single day of the week all throughout the county,” Sunenshine said.

But that level of planning is complicated.

The county’s Heat Relief Network has developed over nearly 20 years. It includes cooling centers where people can sit down in air conditioning as well as hydration stations where visitors can just come in to get free bottled water. Many sites are public buildings like libraries, but the network also includes many heat relief sites run by faith-based organizations or nonprofits.

“It originally started as a voluntary network of cooling centers with not a lot of structure and not a lot of coordination,” Sunenshine said.

So, she said, another important change this year is a much bigger push to organize the region’s patchwork system of heat relief. Her department recently hired its first county-wide cooling center coordinator. Sunenshine said the coordinator is working to contact each site in the Heat Relief Network to identify where there might be opportunities to expand services to get more people out of the heat at more hours of the day.

The county  conducted a survey at heat relief sites last year and Sunenshine said feedback from participants helped shape the county’s planning for this summer.

“We learned that more than half of people who go to cooling centers walk there, and that the biggest barriers to using cooling centers are either not knowing where they are, not knowing that they exist, or not having transportation to get there,” Sunenshine said.

With that in mind, the county is paying for 30 bilingual, community-health workers to join operators fielding heat-relief questions on Arizona’s 211 helpline. And the county will pay for transportation services to get people who call 211 to cooling centers.

None of these programs come cheap. Phoenix's Burton Barr Library cooling center will cost nearly $600,000. Most of the cost comes from 24-hour staffing and security May through September. A combination of federal and county funds will cover it. Maricopa County will also direct more than $2 million in federal funds to other cities and community-based organizations to extend hours at their cooling centers. And the county will allot more than $1 million in federal funds toward heat-related 211 assistance.

Sunenshine said funding for heat relief is often pieced together from multiple sources. Grants to help municipalities combat heat illnesses and deaths are simply harder to come by than they are for other health initiatives, Sunenshine said.

“I think the trouble with heat is people don’t really understand that it is truly a public health issue,” Sunenshine said.

Maricopa County and the city of Phoenix have both been able to direct millions of dollars of federal pandemic relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act toward heat relief programs over the past few years, but those funds will run dry in 2026.

“That is something that we’re looking all over for,” Sunenshine said. “We really need sustainable funding because we know this issue will not go away.”

Hondula said the costs for heat relief programs are well justified.

“We’re hopeful, and we have some confidence that the measures the city has taken over the last few years have saved lives and prevented the impacts from being worse,” Hondula said.

But the number of heat deaths in Maricopa County has risen to a new record high each year since 2016. Hondula said the goal, still, is to find the right public health interventions to start turning the trend around.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include additional heat relief spending figures from Maricopa County.

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Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent. She has produced work for NPR, New England Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, PRI's The World, Washington Post, Reuters and more.She has a master’s degree in radio journalism from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.She lives in central Phoenix with her husband, two daughters, and ill-behaved cat and dog. Her side-passions include photography, crosswords and hot sauce.