Northwest heat waves spotlight emergency planning needs for homeless - Affordable Housing Online

Northwest heat waves spotlight emergency planning needs for homeless

By on August 25th, 2021

Tagged As: Affordable Housing News

Homeless person on a bench. Photo by

Homeless people have been the most vulnerable residents during this summer’s heat waves in the Pacific Northwest. Gaps in local emergency planning left homeless residents in many northwest communities without water and other assistance at their time of greatest need.

The increasing number and severity of climate-related disasters has caught many local governments unprepared. Hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards, and flooding hit homeless members of the community the hardest. Planning for the unique needs of homeless residents during emergencies can save lives in future disasters.

The summer’s first major heatwave struck the northwest in late June. From June 26-28, temperatures ranged from 102-112 degrees. Western Washington and Oregon are known for their temperate climate, with only a few days each summer above 90 degrees. Air conditioning is not widespread outside of public buildings. 

No local government in this region would normally consider planning for a heat event. There was panic buying of fans and air conditioners, but also water. This left empty shelves and made it almost impossible for homeless people to get water. When local governments did open cooling centers, many homeless people were hesitant to leave their belongings behind at encampments.

Pierce County, Washington, has a population of about 900,00. Its largest city is Tacoma, with a population of about 200,000. According to Pierce County, about 1,350 people are without shelter. Many homeless people in the area live in encampments, which are most visible in the City of Tacoma. 

Local governments are limited from clearing camps by the 9th Circuit Court’s Martin v. Boise decision. The Court ruled that local governments could not criminalize or fine people for sleeping in public places if there is not enough adequate shelter available.

Homeless camp in Pierce County, WA. Photo by

On a July 12 National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) webinar, Maureen Howard — consultant and member of the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness — talked about the volunteer response to this crisis. The Coalition stepped in to distribute water when city agencies could not respond.

The Coalition is an all-volunteer group whose mission is to end homelessness in their community. They started meeting in person in 2017, but have had Zoom meetings weekly since early in the pandemic. There is a lot of enthusiasm among participants, with meetings typically attended by 50-90 people.

The Coalition organized a 24/7 water staging and distribution site. It reached out to several agencies, such as Washington State Parks, the Port of Tacoma, City of Tacoma, and Pierce County. They also used a listserv with more than 700 participants to reach out to volunteers.

The Coalition worked to secure a donation of 38 pallets of water from Niagara Bottling, a water company. This is about 30,000-38,000 bottles of water, depending on the size of the bottles. They coordinated volunteers and tracked water deliveries to known encampments. This helped target outreach to underserved areas.

According to Howard, the breakdown in the local government response had several causes. At the outset, the needs of homeless people were not included when emergency response plans were prepared. There was no formal declaration of emergency, and no requirement that publicly funded service providers include homeless needs in their emergency plans. It was also hard to identify and coordinate resources from several local governments, in addition to state and federal help.

Local governments step in

Local governments have stepped in and taken over coordination of outreach and water distribution since the initial heat emergency in June. Affordable Housing Online spoke recently with Maureen Howard, and she talked about how things have changed and improved.

The City of Tacoma will now ensure that there is enough water for all residents during heat emergencies. When temperatures reach 85 degrees, the City will open a community center for cooling, and open a stability site. They have entered into an ongoing agreement with Niagara Water. Water staging is done from the stability site, where outreach workers pick up water for distribution to encampments and neighborhoods. The City provides water to the shelters that it funds.

Pierce County has now taken over coordination of all outreach to homeless residents during heat emergencies. The County is drafting a response plan that will include homeless needs. They have also established a connection with a county-wide food bank for water distribution that will reach rural areas.

Howard shared some observations from the Coalition’s efforts to keep homeless people safe during this summer’s heat waves:

  • Homeless residents need to be included in the emergency planning process.
  • Local emergency response officials need to use short alerts in plain language if they are going to reach more homeless residents. Alerts should be written in the most common languages used in the area.
  • Mobile cooling centers located near larger encampments reach more people.
  • Coordination between local, state, and federal agencies is needed for future climate-related disasters. Communities cannot rely on volunteers alone.

There are key lessons here that can help homeless people in any kind of natural disaster. The most important one is that homeless residents need to be consulted when emergency response plans are drafted or changed. The plans need to reflect what kind of help is needed most and how best to reach those most at risk from the disaster. 

Howard says that the Coalition does not want to create a new system for homeless residents during disasters. Instead, “we want the one that exists to work for people who are unsheltered or unstably housed.”

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Chris Holden

Chris Holden, Affordable Housing Online's Senior Housing Analyst, has been in the affordable housing field for 25 years. Originally from Keene, New Hampshire, he has worked as a researcher, policy analyst, lender, trainer and real estate developer. He also taught political science at Keene State College. He is focused on making housing policies more accessible for low-income renters.