It’s going to be another hot week. Safe at home, I can turn to my cooling system as my apartment begins to swelter in the summer heat. Yet with this privilege also comes a reminder of responsibility. PG&E alerts for rolling blackouts prompt me to turn off the AC and open my windows, hoping to make some small impact on the bigger picture.
Whether it’s raging wildfires in our forests, the persistent drought, or the rising sea levels and erosions in coastal communities, the range of destructive impacts of extreme weather come to front of mind like never before. What we call the human impact to the planet varies from person to person: environmentalism, global warming, climate change, etc. Yet the effects are physically felt by everyone. California, with its vast range of climates and geographies, faces a unique mix of dangers. Our natural environment is under threat.
For our unhoused neighbors, climate change and extreme weather increase the dangers to living in the elements. As temperatures rise this summer, PATH’s outreach teams focus on ways to keep people cool. This isn’t just a matter of comfort; this is a matter of life and death. When people experiencing homelessness are forced to relocate from a park or shaded area, they’re often forced into more urban settings, where the effects of heat islands increase the risk of heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion. For seniors and medically vulnerable people, the impact is even more pronounced.
During the hottest times of the year (which are becoming more frequent), PATH outreach teams distribute extra water, electrolyte drinks, sunscreen, lip balm and hats. We collaborate with mobile health care providers to streamline linkages to field-based services.
In partnership with San Jose, our outreach teams connect people to cooling centers that have Wi-Fi and charging stations. People who are typically afraid to accept shelter referrals may be more open to going indoors. Our teams scramble to secure shelter placements, knowing the availability often exceeds the current need.
This makes a good case for more tree planting and tree canopies across the city, not only for their aesthetic value, but also their environmental impact. Tree canopies can remove cardon dioxide from the air, produce more oxygen and have the ability to lower temperatures as much as 40 degrees. To learn more, check out the city’s interactive map that shows the benefits of their tree programs.
With extreme heat often come fires, and California wildfires spread poor air quality throughout the state. Last year when the skies transformed into an ominous burnt orange, we retreated indoors, anxiously monitoring the mounting air quality index on our phones. Yet our unhoused neighbors couldn’t.
Our outreach workers were true heroes during this moment, donning N95 masks to bring essentials, referrals and hope to clients in the field. Still, the poor air quality meant we had to limit our time in the field and thus, our clients had to wait longer for services and connections to shelter and housing. It’s crucial to mention that these wildfires also resulted in deaths, displacement and in many cases, homelessness for individuals and families.
Other than these immediate impacts, other links between climate change and homelessness may not seem obvious, but housing policies have caused many of the underlying challenges we are facing on both fronts. Where housing is built and how much of it is built impacts our environment as well as housing accessibility and affordability.
Across the state, housing policies have given preference to single-family zoning and sprawl. We have built communities in fire prone areas, away from urban centers, and forced the necessity of auto-centric life. For many Californians, the distance between where they can afford to live and where they work requires long commutes.
The lack of available housing near employment centers plus the additional expenses of vehicle ownership makes the cost of living extremely high. The further out of reach housing becomes, the more people fall into homelessness. This is also quite detrimental to the environment, after all, personal vehicle usage accounts for 41% of our state’s emissions.
Housing supply has severely lagged behind population growth and hasn’t even come close to meeting exponential demands. We’re not building enough housing and we’re not building in sustainable ways. If we focus on building infill projects and building near transit, we can combat the effects of previous planning practices.
That is why through PATH Ventures, our housing development branch, we are working to increase the stock of affordable housing in urban areas, in locations that are close to services, near public transit and job centers and focus on implementing sustainable building practices that keep in mind the future of our planet. Additionally, San Jose is working to update its Affordable Housing Siting Policy with equity, accessibility and sustainability in mind.
At PATH, we know issues of housing and homelessness do not happen in a vacuum. In order to truly address these crises, we need to address systemic problems that cause and exacerbate them. We can work toward protecting our environment and providing housing for people at all income levels. We can work on beautifying our city and building more hospitable and sustainable communities. We can work toward creating a more equitable future that reduces climate change and the dangers of living on the street.
San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is the director of programs at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]