Homeless in the heat: Organizations help those in need

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The hottest temperatures so far this year are bearing down on Salem, and people are scrambling for ways to cool off.

They will turn up the air conditioning, change into lightweight summer clothes, go swimming, or go to a store or restaurant for an hour or two.

Homeless people, living on the street, have few opportunities to take advantage of any of these cooling strategies, and there are only a handful of places to turn to for help.

“It isn’t enough to open day centers,” said Tami Partlow, a volunteer with Northwest Human Services. “We need a bigger facility, more showers, and more washers and dryers to help more people.”

Partlow volunteers at the Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project, or HOAP, a day care center where she has witnessed the heat affect dozens of people.

Some homeless shelters and partner organizations immediately begin providing heat-related resources when the temperatures get hot, similar to actions taken in the winter months.

The Union Gospel Mission, for instance, allows women to rest out of the heat in the men’s shelter during days that reach above 85 degrees — similar to the emergency warming shelters in Salem established when temperatures drop below 29 degrees for three consecutive nights.

During the hot months, Partlow said, bottled water is a necessity, and it is one of many resources Northwest Human Services and other organizations are trying to provide for those dealing with the heat.

Partlow estimated that 60 to 100 people come into the center on any given day. Stephen Goins, social service program manager at Northwest Human Services, confirmed that and added that if the homeless people can’t access a shelter and a shower, they have to go back out into the heat while they are still dirty, sweaty, hot and thirsty.

This has the potential to affect hundreds of people. According to the 2014 Homeless Count Report, there are about 1,815 people living without permanent shelter in Marion and Polk counties, though the numbers are most likely conservative estimates. In Marion county, 32 percent of the homeless are between the ages of 40 and 49, and approximately 22 percent are under the age of 29 years old.

Additionally, 68 percent are male and 84 percent are white.

Though Partlow is privy to this information as a volunteer, she has also experienced the heat and struggle firsthand.

Partlow, 49, became homeless last November as she helped a childhood friend get back on his feet after he was released from prison. He was living in a tent in a very dirty area, Partlow said.

When her friend developed three strains of staph infection from the living conditions, he went into a coma, and Partlow had to make the very difficult decision to take him off life support, knowing he would have to have his legs and arms removed if he ever woke.

Filled with grief, Partlow became homeless, living in the same tent her friend had before his death. Though Partlow had a steady job for eight years working at Norpac Food Inc., the situation was overwhelming and changed the course of her life completely.

She began going into the HOAP center to utilize the showers and she eventually became a peer associate, helping others in similar situations.

“I believe in helping other people,” she said. “I’m working on the trauma, the grief, the loss. I’ve been through a lot, but I think if I represent myself well enough, people will see a change in me that could be a change in them.”

Michael Hancock has been homeless for years and said he is no stranger to dealing with the heat on the streets.

Hancock, 32, became homeless in 2001 and ended up spending more than 13 years in prison. After his release, he dealt with various issues. His inmate beat him and caused him to suffer from severe back pain. Along with physical disabilities, he also deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, bipolar disease and depression. He travels around Salem in a wheelchair because of a leg injury, making it that much harder for him to find a cool place to stay.

“I can’t utilize the organizations, not when they are at such a distance for me to get to,” he said.

He is often times sunburned, his skin peeling from being in the sun all day.

He said he is trying to survive on few resources. Even water, something most organizations are focusing on distributing, can be a challenge to get — especially at night when many businesses are closed.

“I don’t want to be moved or bumped out,” he said. “I don’t know what bathrooms to use since I can’t pay for something to use a restroom and many of the day centers and public restrooms don’t open until 8 a.m.”

These are among many problems those experiencing homelessness might face. However, volunteers, donors and organizations said they are attempting to address these issues as best they can.

In addition to bottled water and available indoor space, shelters and organizations, such as Marion-Polk Food Share and the Community Action ARCHES Project, are working toward collecting other things like nonperishable food (though perishable food, like fruits and vegetables, are welcome as well), blankets, clothing, and hygiene products to give away.

Some groups meet in areas where a lot of homeless people gather, like under the Marion Street Bridge, to deliver meals and chilled, bottled water.

Additionally, those who must face the summer temperatures outside might show signs of heat exhaustion or other heat-related illnesses, such as dehydration or a heat stroke.

Organizations like Northwest Human Services are training their volunteers and employees to recognize signs of heat-related illnesses and are implementing emergency procedures so workers can more easily contact nurses and other medical professionals.

Jeremy Williams, another person using HOAP’s services, said anyone can end up on the streets. It is organizations like Northwest Human Services that are helping people reclaim their lives.

Williams, 37, moved to Salem seeking medical attention from an injury that occurred in Kansas. Williams worked for the same company for more than 20 years and was injured saving his son from being hit by large machinery on site.

From child custody issues to displacement, Williams and his family have experienced all kinds of suffering. He said he is doing whatever it takes to get his family and life back in order.

The last thing he wants to deal with is the high temperatures, but it is a fact of life while he is in and out of apartments.

“He truly is a testament to the human spirit,” Goins said.

Goins said that a lot of people he works with have to live life day to day, hour to hour, and are forced to view life differently. He said they seek creative solutions to problems others may never have to think about.

Because of this, they need materials, food and water available whenever and as often as possible.

No matter what, these organizations say they always need help from the community.

npate@statesmanjournal.com or (503) 399-6745 or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate

How to help

Volunteers and donors can give money, food, water, blankets, hygiene products and their time to:

Union Gospel Mission, 345 Commercial St. NE
Northwest Human Services, 681 Center St. NE
Marion-Polk Food Share warehouse, 1330 Salem Industrial Drive NE.
If someone is suffering from heat-related illness or exhaustion, experts advise bystanders to:

Move them to a cool, shaded area. Do not leave them alone.
Loosen or remove heavy clothing.
Provide cool water to drink (a small cup every 15 minutes) if the person is not feeling sick to the stomach.
Try to cool them by fanning them. Cool the skin with a spray mist of cold water or a wet cloth.
If they do not feel better in a few minutes, call 911.

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