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When the heat hits, think of the homeless

By Samuel Lehman,

It’s noon, and it’s over 100 degrees in Washington. The media and others have endlessly repeated their solid, survive-the-heat advice: Stay inside, preferably near air conditioning, and drink lots of water. Good advice, unless you can’t get or stay inside or consistently access fresh water — in other words, if you’re homeless.

You can’t visit or live in the nation’s capital without recognizing that homelessness is an enormous problem here. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are more than 6,000 homeless men, women and children in the District and well over 25,000 homeless people in the District, Maryland and Virginia combined. In 2009, a third of the District’s homeless could be categorized as experiencing “chronic homelessness,” meaning that for reasons including disability and mental illness, they had been homeless repeatedly or for long periods. Although only some of them were completely “unsheltered,” many shelters or transitional housing facilities don’t allow occupants to return during the day. Here in Washington, the homeless can often be found in parks, on sidewalks and in alleys during the day.

But let’s stand back from the panoramic view of homelessness in the capital, however troubling. This day is headed toward 105 degrees, and the heat index (a measure of how hot it feels) will surpass 115. Today and tomorrow and for as long as deadly heat pervades Washington and large parts of the country, homelessness isn’t a troubling phenomenon; it’s a life-and-death situation.

Taking my cues from “midnight runs” (programs in which young people, often youth groups, pass out bags of toiletries to people sleeping in parks, in squares or on sidewalks), I decide to do a water run. A few friends and I buy bottles of cold water to pass out among the numerous homeless people within a few blocks of my office — a radius that, incidentally, includes the White House. Our hope is that by providing some cold water now, plus a bottle that can be refilled later, we can do something to ease discomfort, ameliorate pain and thirst, and even possibly help to save a life.

Since then, we had a brief respite from the heat, but the scorching temperatures are returning. It will again be dangerous to be living outside. The overwhelming problem of homelessness aside, every one of us can have a real impact on the well-being of some fellow Washingtonians — simply by buying an extra bottle or two, asking folks we pass every day if they’d like one, and telling them to stay cool and have a nice day.

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