There is a hidden population in Santa Clara County that is hit the hardest in a heat wave and it’s the homeless, advocates said.

The county’s Office of Emergency Management in a news release said the most vulnerable in a heat wave are “those who spend a lot of time outdoors, those without air conditioning, young children, the elderly, and those with chronic ailments.”

Unhoused residents fit all those categories, with many overlaps, long-time advocate and pastor Scott Wagers said as he distributed water to the unhoused residents living in downtown San Jose’s Roosevelt Park on Thursday.

He said those who are homeless are in a uniquely bad position when a heat wave hits.

“All the factors are there,” Wagers said. “I think the most vulnerable population anywhere for anything, heat, cold, COVID, everything, anything is them.”

That is because unhoused people, in addition to not having consistent access to food, water and other basic needs, also do not have access to information.

“They are finding out about the heat advisory right now,” Wagers said on the second day of the Bay Area’s heat wave as temperatures in the South Bay hovered around 100 degrees Friday.

“They can’t prepare, don’t know there are cooling centers, and are far away from the cooling centers anyway,” he continued.

The point of cooling centers, Wagers said, was an important one.

The county, in collaboration with cities, opened nearly a dozen cooling centers throughout its borders, but those weren’t accessible to “the most vulnerable population,” because they are too far, Wagers said.

A deadly distance away

For example, San Jose had two cooling centers, the closest one at Joyce Ellington Library, being a 30-minute walk away from Roosevelt Park. Many others live even farther away, he said.

“Realistically they could die trying to do that walk in the heat,” because they are already dehydrated, with bodies weakened and aged by the harsh elements that come with living in a tent or a car, said Moe Firoz, a long-time volunteer with Wagers.

And those realities make homeless people age faster, with physical conditions mirroring those 15-20 years older than them, according to a 2020 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“Even if you are not technically elderly, if you are homeless and you are like 35, you basically are,” Wagers said.

“There’s homeless individuals who have underlying health conditions and so heat exacerbates that. There are people unhoused who may use various substances, alcohol or drugs which fool people into thinking that they’re safe when they are not because it affects their body temperature.”

Michelle Covert, Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing

Michelle Covert, housing and homeless concerns coordinator with the county’s Office of Supportive Housing, echoed that sentiment.

“There’s homeless individuals who have underlying health conditions and so heat exacerbates that. There are people unhoused who may use various substances, alcohol or drugs which fool people into thinking that they’re safe when they are not because it affects their body temperature,” she said.

Also, those living in a car or an RV are at risk because “temperatures can dangerously rise without residents realizing,” Covert said.

She said to help mitigate the potential harms, the county offers free transportation services to take unhoused residents to and from cooling centers. Individuals interested could call the housing and homeless hotline at 408-278-6420.

Few reach out for assistance

But she said of the roughly 10,000 homeless residents, only five to six people took the county up on that offer.

“If they’re set up somewhere in the park or camp, they don’t really want to leave their belongings aside, you know?” Covert said.

She also agreed with one of Wagers’ concerns regarding lack of information.

“We alerted all our homeless service and outreach providers in the beginning of the week so they could start distributing information to individuals,” Covert said. “But then it’s getting into all those nooks and crannies and it’s hard to, in a heat wave, get to 320 encampments.”

She said the county works with dozens of service providers and nonprofits who act as conduits for the county to homeless encampments.

Advocates said in the past it was typical to see a couple unhoused residents die from extreme heat — more so than in cold temperatures.

And it is the same factors — lack of access to resources and information — that also made homeless people vulnerable and forgotten during the pandemic, Wagers said.

“They are cut off,” he said. “Just like during COVID, they didn’t have the information they needed, didn’t know if it was real, if masking and social distancing was real. I was basically their spokesperson for the CDC.”

Covert also emphasized that COVID-19 disproportionately hurt homeless people.

In the early months of the pandemic, many were not going out to encampments anymore because health orders prohibited out-of-household interactions.

Wagers said his used-to-be army of dozens of volunteers dwindled down to just one dozen.

Hotline helps fill information gap

Covert’s office and county partners had to find creative ways to reach homeless populations without endangering themselves or the people they are serving, she said.

That’s why the Office of Supportive Housing launched a hotline and text alert service that unhoused residents can sign up for to get information regarding extreme weather conditions, COVID concerns and access to resources.

But still, advocates said local jurisdictions need to do more.

“We just can’t reach them all,” Firoz said. “The helpers need help too.”

He called on the county and cities to meet the homeless where they are to provide resources.

“It’s ironic that an empty building — an actual community center — is not utilized as a resource hub or cooling center when 20, 30, 50 community members are sitting right outside of it struggling to survive,” Firoz said.

He was referring to the still-closed Roosevelt Community Center that is in the same complex as Roosevelt Park, where dozens of tents are set up.

“What does that mean?” Firoz positioned, “The county and cities are not meeting homeless people where they need to.”

Covert said the county encourages cities to open as many cooling centers as they can, so the decision is in city hands.

She also noted that with the state’s recent reopening, unhoused residents can go to other libraries, community centers, use buses and even malls as a respite from the heat.

“Could we keep doing more? Of course, we could,” Covert said. “But I think we continue to try to do more every weather period. Each year we’re trying to expand as much as possible.”