It’s unusually quiet at the entrance to Camp Hope when the temperature hits 102F (38.8C) on a sizzling Monday afternoon this week.
Fewer than a dozen of the usual 50 residents at this sanctioned homeless encampment in Las Cruces, New Mexico, are milling about. Those that are around are hosing themselves off with water until their clothes are soaked through, resting in front of fans plugged into long extension cords, or sheltering in the shade that wooden structures offer.
The temperature is predicted to rise to 106F (41C) come afternoon, so the majority of residents have opted to go elsewhere: seeking out air conditioning on city buses and in public cooling centers.
As a record-breaking heatwave sweeps across the south-west, more than 100 million Americans are living under heat alerts. While parts of neighboring Texas tie for the hottest place in the world and Phoenix records 19 straight days of temperatures above 110F (43.3C), New Mexico is facing high temperatures compounded by the late arrival of the state’s typical monsoon season. Located in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert, just 40 miles from the US-Mexico border, Las Cruces is no stranger to 100F (37.7C) days. But, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New Mexico’s average summer temperature has increased 3.6 degrees since 1983.
The extreme conditions are disproportionately affecting the state’s homeless population, which has grown by 48% this year, according to a report by the state’s legislative finance committee, to a total of about 4,000 people across the state. Since 2017, the report states, rents have risen by 70% in New Mexico while wages have only increased 15%, and the supply of affordable rental units has declined by 50% since 2020.
Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of heat not only because they lack consistent access to air-conditioned shelter, but also because any health conditions they’re already dealing with – like mental illness, cancer or substance use – can be exacerbated by heat.
With access to resources, the residents of Camp Hope are slightly more equipped to deal with the staggering heat than people living on the streets, said Lizz Coyle, Camp Hope’s outreach coordinator.
The camp was founded in 2011 when members of Las Cruces’s unhoused community came together with the city council to establish a sanctioned encampment. Today, Camp Hope is located on land that the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope rents from the city. The site is also home to a food bank, soup kitchen and health clinic. The camp itself consists of an open-air kitchen, bathrooms, a few shaded community spaces, an ice machine and dozens of tent pads – about half of which are covered by three-sided wooden structures that offer some shade and protection from the elements.
Along with occasional access to the air-conditioned building, Camp Hope is able to provide its residents with ice, running water, 24/7 showers, electricity and shade. “But of course, nothing feels like enough because the heat’s miserable. I’ve got several clients who are distressed because their health is suffering in the heat,” Coyle said.
On Monday afternoon, several of the camp’s residents were among more than 30 people forming a line snaking around the edge of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope’s office. Some of them were trying to access services that the non-profit provides to the unhoused population in Las Cruces – others were just hoping to spend a few minutes in the air-conditioned interior.
Although Camp Hope is better suited for the heat, its residents and staff stress that it’s no substitute for housing.
“The majority of people who live here try not to stay here during the day,” said Jeremiah, a 24-year-old, former resident who asked only to be identified by his first name because of the stigma associated with homelessness. It’s too hot in camp, he said. Instead, residents try to spend the hottest hours of the day on the city’s free buses, in public libraries or city-sponsored “cooling centers”, or even at parks where grass and shade make for lower outdoor temperatures. But sometimes those public spaces can be hostile to unhoused visitors.
One of the camp’s residents, a 66-year-old man who asked only to be identified by the nickname “Dennis” because he fears pushback from city officials, said he used to ride the city buses until drivers started kicking him off for bringing his dog with him. Dennis has stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver and has struggled to find ways to keep himself healthy and cool while also caring for his pet dog. “An apartment would help,” he said.
On hot summer days, a greenhouse effect can raise the temperature in residents’ tents to above 140F (60C).
“Last week it was so hot in the nighttime that some people actually took down their tents and decided to sleep out in the open,” said Coyle, the outreach coordinator. Heat deaths are a real concern this time of year. When members of the camp’s safety team make their rounds each day, Coyle added, they’ll often check tents to make sure everyone’s still alive.
“Heat is the silent killer,” said Kristie L Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington. “It’s not dramatic in the sense of a flood, for example, or a storm surge. But our body operates within a fairly narrow temperature range.” A variety of factors – like ageing, pregnancy and certain medications, including beta blockers and psychotropic drugs – can make people more vulnerable to heat, she added.
There are several ways to cool off without the aid of air conditioning, according to a 2021 series on heat and health published in the Lancet, including by dousing oneself in water, staying hydrated, and using fans or evaporative coolers. At Camp Hope, residents regularly employ all of those practices: sipping ice water while sitting under a misting system donated by a former resident, designing their own evaporative coolers out of a fan and a frozen juice jug, and dousing their clothes and hair in water.
Every Tuesday, residents come together for a community gathering called the great conversation, where Coyle says many share their tips for surviving the summer heat.
Although the city of Las Cruces has taken significant steps to protect its residents from the heat – including by opening 12 cooling centers – Coyle said that the biggest step the city could take to protect unhoused residents would be to get them into housing, either by lowering background checks for Section 8 or building more affordable units.
“Nearly all heat-related deaths are preventable,” said Ebi, who adds that there’s strong academic research on how to prevent heat-related illness and mortality. “This is not inevitable. This is a result of not having access to the services that are needed.
“I would say that no matter what we do, no matter how many cooling stations we put up,” said Coyle, “housing is the thing.”