Maricopa County makes historic investments to prevent heat-related deaths this summer

Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ

90-year-old Barbara Geike (right) and granddaughter Amber Stillson (left) at their home in Suncity West. When the air conditioner broke, Goeke and Stillson received help through the county’s new assistance program.

Barbara Gaeke has lived in a modest home in the Suncity West retirement community for 30 years. She loves Arizona and she doesn’t mind hot summers as long as she can relax in her big recliner. But a few weeks ago, as temperatures began to climb into the triple digits, Goeke’s air conditioning stopped working. Gaeke is 90 years old and she has many health problems. She turned up the volume on her ceiling fan, but soon she felt weak and nauseous.

“It was so hot that I felt very sick,” Gaeke said. “I couldn’t stand the heat.”

Geike’s granddaughter, Amber Stillson, is her full-time caregiver. They rely on Gaeke’s meager severance pay. Replacing an AC unit can cost upwards of $10,000.

“It was scary, really scary. Kind of hopeless and helpless,” Stillson said. “I was just worried about her because she couldn’t afford it and she couldn’t live like this.”

Stilson began researching services that might help, eventually calling Maricopa County officials and arranging for Geike’s air conditioner to be replaced free of charge.

in Maricopa County air conditioner replacement program This is one of several new initiatives recently funded by the County Board of Supervisors to reduce the effects of heat. Summers are always hot in the Phoenix area, but Maricopa County is seeing an increase in heat-related deaths. Last summer had the worst death toll on record. So this year, the county is spending more than ever on heat measures in hopes of turning the trend around.

“We are more advanced than ever when it comes to addressing heat relief in our communities,” County Human Services Director Jacqueline Edwards told KJZZ News.

Jacqueline Edwards

Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ

Jacqueline Edwards is the Director of the Maricopa County Department of Welfare.

Over the past year, the county has replaced about 500 air conditioning units for vulnerable, low-income homeowners like Goeke. We plan to replace 500-600 more in the next few months.

“Air conditioning is not just a nice to have, it is essential,” says Edwards. “This could be a matter of life and death.”

It’s not an exaggeration.last year Maricopa County records 425 deaths due to heat. According to county analysis In most cases of indoor heat fatalities, the air conditioning was not working.

However, most heat deaths in the county in recent years have occurred outdoors.

County officials say the summer’s biggest health threat isn’t just scorching temperatures, it’s that the number of people without shelter in the area is three times what it was a decade ago.

“It can be a dangerous situation for people,” said Daniel McMahon, deputy chief operating officer of the Saint Vincent de Paul Association.

McMahon said he has overseen the group’s Phoenix soup kitchen meal service for many years and has seen first-hand how the heat can take its toll on the unsheltered.

“People are coming and they definitely need shelter from the rain and they need water. We are,” McMahon said.

This summer, the county is spending $2.4 million to partner with Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale and other cities to tackle the heat for homeless residents. The counties and cities involved plan to open daytime cooling shelters, fund street support teams, and pay for some hotel vouchers and transportation services.

Funds are also coming in for McMahon’s diner. Starting on Memorial Day, St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room in downtown Phoenix will open in the afternoon as a cooling center where unsheltered people can sit in air conditioning and drink water. And in the evening, staff and volunteers fold down the dining table and fill the building with 200 beds to keep the heat out of the night.

overnight resort

Courtesy of Saint Vincent de Paul

This summer, with funding from Maricopa County, a diner in downtown St. Vincent de Paul will also operate as an overnight shelter for people who are homeless.

“We’re trying to maximize capacity while ensuring safety, but we want to keep as many people inside as possible,” McMahon said.

The canteen has been used as temporary accommodation in the past, but can only operate as such if outside funding is available.

A huge amount of money was raised this year. The county has spent nearly $14 million this summer on the night cooling shelter, homeless assistance partnerships with Valley cities, and an air conditioner replacement program. And the budget for alleviating the heat is on top of the nearly $500 million the oversight board has directed toward affordable housing and solutions to the homeless problem since 2020. That’s a significant increase compared to the usual budget that the county might spend on homelessness programs, which is only $1 million to $2 million. Year.

City and state governments have also invested heavily in recent years to reduce homelessness. And the efforts seem to have had some effect.latest data Point-in-time survey of homelessness shows that homelessness continues to rise in the Phoenix metropolitan area, but as shelter capacity in the area has expanded this year, people living in emergency shelters and temporary housing have contributed to the growing homeless population. While the increase in the homeless population accounted for the majority of the increase in the homeless population. On the street fell slightly.

McMahon feels the change has made him more optimistic as temperatures begin to rise.

“We expect people to be indoors more often this summer than they were last year,” McMahon said.

But most of these budget increases are only temporary.Most of Maricopa County’s spending goes to heat relief and homelessness Raised from temporary pandemic relief money Counties received from the federal government. And time will tell if this unprecedented spending will be enough to significantly reduce the number of heat stroke deaths this summer.

Mr. Edwards hopes so. And she hopes the county’s heat relief program will be successful enough that the county will continue to find ways to invest in some of it even after federal aid runs out.

But in her opinion, she said, this summer would be successful if just one more person escaped the heat.

“If we can serve one more person than we did last year, it will make a difference in our community,” Edwards said.

overnight resort

Courtesy of Saint Vincent de Paul

The majority of heat stroke deaths in Maricopa County occur outdoors, and many occur among unsheltered populations. This summer, the county is funding the establishment of an overnight heat shelter in the Saint-Vincent-de-Port dining room.

Back in Suncity West, Barbara Gaeke said the county’s efforts have certainly made a difference for her.

“You don’t know what we went through,” Geike said.

When she learned that the county would cover the costs of keeping her cool, healthy, and living in the home she had lived in for many years, she said she was “crying to tears.”


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