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It's getting harder to keep vulnerable people safe in the Arizona heat

It might still officially be spring, but it’s certainly starting to feel like summer here in the Valley. We’ve already hit our first 100-degree day and that means we’re already staring down another hot summer. Last summer, we shattered record after record, including spending more than a month above 110 degrees. 

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health recently reported there was also a record number of heat deaths in 2023: 645 at final count. And a lot of that had to do with the increase in the state’s homeless population. 

So, heading into *this summer, the people who work with that population are getting ready early. And that’s where The Show's next guest comes in. 

Jessica Berg is the chief program officer at St. Vincent de Paul. The Show spoke with her more about her organization’s role in preventing heat deaths — and how much harder it’s gotten. 

Full conversation

JESSICA BERG: Over 20 years now, we've opened our dining rooms for extended hours in the summer to help folks have a, a respite and relief from the heat. So we're continuing to do that, have extended hours into the early evening. We have a partnership this summer as we did last summer with the city of Phoenix and Sunnyslope, opening a resource center, relief center space. We have a small building on our main campus where we'll be welcoming families and then they're also welcome to join us for dinner. And we also have our water trucks, our outreach trucks that visit folks who are, gosh, under bridges, alleyways in the, in the river bottom, not connected to services at all. So, you know, in some ways, it's not that different than what we do all year, which is try to reach folks in need or invite them into a welcoming safe space and we just try to double that up during the summer because of the, the dangers of the heat.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. Talk a little bit about the changes you've seen on that front. Like it's gotten hotter. We know that much. The heat seems to have gotten more dangerous. But at the same time, we've seen more people on the street. We've seen the numbers of people experiencing homelessness just go way, way up.

BERG: Yeah, the deaths just go up every year. If you look at what Maricopa County Public Health puts out, it's quite shocking how much it keeps going up. And you know, some, some folks ask, you know, why, why are people still on the street? Because there's so much good that all these organizations and municipalities are doing to get folks off the street.

But for every one person or household that exits homelessness, there are two people or households entering it in Maricopa County. And really, that's because folks can't afford, they can't afford housing. In one of our housing programs, our average length of stay there transitional housing for decades has been about five or six months, and just the past couple of years, it's now eight or nine months because folks can't afford housing that that's out there.

And it's especially relevant during, during heat relief because the the data is really fascinating that the heat-related deaths that occurred indoors, 85% of those had air conditioning that wasn't working. The work that we do to keep folks in their housing, keep their ACs running is so important in our community.

GILGER: Can you tell me Jessica a little bit about your own motivation for working in this realm like this is not easy work. Why did you come to St. Vincent de Paul? Why have you been there for so long?

BERG: It's such a special place. There's a lot of organizations out there doing fantastic work in homelessness, prevention and homelessness response. And we're doing that and, and the differentiator for me, why I'm still here is we do all of this with the community and try to be a space of common ground where folks who are in need and folks who have something to give can really come together and foster this joy and, and hope for the community and, and create solutions together that really work.

GILGER: That's great. So, one of the things you said at the beginning really struck me, which is that, that it seems like no matter how much you're doing, right, like the, there's more collaboration, there's more work with not just your organization but everybody, the city, faith groups, nonprofits, but it's not enough.

BERG: I think we're making significant progress together. As you said, all the nonprofits, the municipalities, the collaboration is beyond what I've seen. And I've been in this work for a long time, probably almost 20 years now. And there's so much innovation and we're helping folks get off the street. But in the past few years, really, I've seen it the most since COVID during COVID, we have, we had all this federal funding throughout the country and this eviction moratorium to keep folks from falling off that cliff and that federal funding is going away and the prevention funding is, is long gone.

And that eviction moratorium is long gone. And since then, our evictions have been so high. It's, I think it's about 8,000 a month in Maricopa County. The way that the housing prices have soared is so opposite, the way wages have gone up. We just have this imbalance in our community that is really not allowing us to fully fix the problem of homelessness.

GILGER: But we still watch the number of heat deaths go up every year. We're watching that right now. As we get ready for this coming summer, what are your biggest worries?

BERG: Well, I think it's that there are still folks on the street and we don't have quite enough beds in our community for everyone. And so as much as we can welcome people in and do outreach for so many various reasons. I mean, mental illness is so much worse in the summer in that there are some medications, some narcotics and antipsychotics that really make it very difficult for people to regulate their body temperature.

So the folks that are most vulnerable and need the most help mental health wise are also the most at risk for heat related illness. I think my worry is just that, you know, I know, unfortunately, we're not going to be able to reach everyone. Six hundred forty five people died last summer, heat related deaths and 75% of those were outside. Outside. So I think, you know, sometimes we say around here to remind ourselves to, to keep going. We can't save everyone, but we have to constantly remind ourselves of that because we all want to.

GILGER: Hmm, so let me ask you lastly about kind of the big picture looking forward. I wonder as you watch the, the city get hotter, right? And you watch the numbers of heat dust go up every year and you're trying to prevent that from happening as best you can with all of these other people involved, right? Like what do you think systemically we need to do in this, in this community here in the Valley to prevent this from getting worse every year?

BERG: Well, I think we actually are taking a lot of steps together. I think, Not sure if it's this summer for the first time that the city, state and county now have officials and offices in charge of heat mitigation. The state has or will have a chief heat officer, Maricopa County has a heat relief program coordinator, the city has an office of heat response and mitigation. And I think it's just important that we continue to all work together at this and it's really important that we figure out how to get everyone a bed to bring people inside that the concrete can, I can't remember, it's something like over 120 degrees. The concrete holds that heat. And so even at night, you can't really cool down if you're sleeping outside. I think it's just collaboration and beds are what we need to focus on together and obviously not just in the summer but year round.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. We'll leave it there for now. That is Jessica Berg, chief program officer at St. Vincent de Paul. Jessica, thank you for coming on. I appreciate you taking the time.

BERG: Thank you so much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.