Over the course of the last month, associates of the Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies have been exploring the dimensions of homelessness from multiple interdisciplinary perspectives. We have explored the causes of homelessness, the changes in the economic conditions around homelessness historically, and the risk of homelessness to teens in foster care. In this segment of the series, I want to expand on the themes of risk and vulnerability in homelessness as they relate to climate change.

There are many studies measuring and describing the impacts of climate change and the associated approaches to mitigation and adaptation. I was interested, however, to learn about the challenges of climate change in the specific context of homelessness.

Climate is made up of the weather conditions (like temperature, humidity, rainfall, windspeed, etc.) that occur in a given place over a given period of time. Climate change, therefore, is the change in long-term weather averages. Scientists around the world have studied these averages and concluded that the rate at which the global climate is changing has increased significantly since the advent of the industrial revolution, and some of the outcomes of that rate change are more extreme weather events and natural disasters.

Since we know that climate change leads to more frequent and more extreme weather events and natural disasters, it would follow that those who are exposed to this extreme weather would be at greater risk of its impacts. The literature on this topic affirms that extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) — coupled with humidity levels — impact mortality rates, illness morbidity (such as respiratory or cardiovascular conditions) and vector-borne disease transmission among the homeless and marginally housed individuals.

This exposure risk to homeless populations is not where the story of vulnerability ends, however. Dr. Allison Gibson of the University of Kentucky explains that “There is a growing field of evidence that individuals experiencing homelessness are disproportionately impacted by disasters due to factors such as exposure to the elements, lack of resources and services, as well as disenfranchisement, and stigma associated with homelessness, all while experiencing greater occurrences of environmental injustice.”

When extreme weather events occur, homeless service providers found that clients not only face physical health challenges (18% of clients), but mental health declines (37%) and drug/alcohol consumption increases (26%) as a result of restricted movement and disrupted social connections due to loss and evacuation.

Climate change vulnerability lies not only in physical exposure, but also intersects with social and mental health. For instance, the risk of death from heat increases for those with psychiatric disabilities, alcoholism and cognitive impairment.

These are all conditions that are more prevalent in homeless individuals compared to home-secure individuals. These impairments make it less likely that an individual will be able to seek out or access relief from the heat. Likewise, homeless individuals are less likely to be able to escape or evacuate from extreme weather conditions or natural disasters, and they cannot access social resources during emergencies as readily. Furthermore, homeless individuals often face social discrimination, which may decrease their access to assistance for the negative outcomes of climate risks.

Homelessness is often marked by isolation and transience, increasing the chances that they will not receive assistance when they are in physical distress. In other words, simply having someone else looking out for your physical health helps to reduce your risk of death from things like extreme temperatures.

So how do we approach these challenges? Climate risks exist for the homeless along three dimensions: physical, mental, and social. Addressing these three dimensions in advance of extreme weather events or natural disasters can help to mitigate these risks. Ensuring access and mobility during climate events for homeless and marginally housed populations can shore up their ability to withstand these events and adapt to the increased frequency of these events.

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