Voices: With ever worsening heatwaves it’s time for access to cooling to be a human right

·5-min read
Stephanie Williams, 60, cools off with water from a hydrant in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles during the current heatwave  (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Stephanie Williams, 60, cools off with water from a hydrant in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles during the current heatwave (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

California is making records again with its record-breaking heatwave this week. Californians spent their Labor Day weekend contending with extreme heat warnings. The Bay Area, which is notoriously known for its cold weather summers, is having its hottest recorded temperature.

While folks contend with these soaring temperatures, it’s important to recongize their importance in relation to a couple of other hot areas of California (and other world-shared) discussion: housing and homeless matters. At a time when climate changes are even more important to be mindful of, perhaps it’s time we had a discussion on livable climates being a human right. In California, like other places around the world, heating is required for housing… but not its counterpart. Why are cooling spaces and offering routes for body cooling not more present? Why also, is nothing done year after year with the knowledge of these excessive temperatures?

The heatwave affects all walks of life throughout California. Housing regulations that do not require cooling in the state amplify the issue for tenants. As someone who experienced homelessness who spent a moment in transitional housing, I can attest that it wasn’t present there either. Without the regulations dictating it, it doesn’t feel like it’s a priority. It is often minimized or pushing for alternatives… if they are even advocating for other solutions at all.

But wait – there are supposed to be cooling centers to help folks with things right? Wrong. Cooling centers in California, while helpful, are not abundant enough to serve the population, especially mass populations of homeless. They also don’t serve folks outside of conventional working hours. Homeless populations dealing with the heat often go to public spaces such as coffee shops or public libraries for relief. Some libraries across the state are closing due to the heat, some libraries are trying to help out to serve folks who might be in need of respite. With not enough space to assist and regulations not insisting it as a human right, it’s no wonder that the death toll of folks dying due to the extreme heat is rising. How high of a level does it need to be before more politicians more attention and care?

Some folks may want to dismiss the heat as being a limited time and therefore potentially more excusable to simply deal with for a few weeks out of the year. However, with climate change being something that is affecting folks around the world, it becomes even more of an important thing to get in front of rather than dismiss.

There are also day-to-day items that folks may need to pay more attention to. When I was recently in Europe I saw tons of water fountains that were free and accessible to anyone who wanted to use them. Having that available within moments of where I walked in public areas was a great way to cool down. It was a way where everyone had the ability to access a way to cool off. I even saw folks using those stations not only to drink but to douse themselves in water to cool down. It was a small but mighty game changer that I just haven’t seen executed with real coverage in California. I say this as someone who was homeless in California and one that has driven for rideshare while homeless all across California. Locally, folks who are trying to embark on their regular day-to-day travel across cities like Los Angeles are often forced to do it without the benefit of spaces with shelter from the heat. This is not a new issue either.

An LA Times oped also remarked about this back in 2015. Where is the attention and care for citizens trying to commute? The fact that these issues are happening after Labor Day also connects with normal local pools being closed. A Google Document listing pool closures was posted on Los Angeles reporter Alissa Walker’s Twitter this week with a statement that the “information is nearly impossible to find even searching the city’s own website and app.” For folks with internet or power issues either via outages or simply not having a device capable of accessing online resources, this can be yet another obstacle that folks are forced to face in order to get access to a route to cool oneself publicly.

It feels like these issues are dismissed as issues that only the impoverished contend with. Landlords and government officials need to acknowledge that these issues affect more than they may want to consider. They affect the working and middle class. They affect our homeless. They affect the heartbeat of our worlds and our economies.

Like it or not but these issues are only getting worse. It’s time to get ahead of the problem already. It’s time to step it up and change for our evolving world. We need better solutions and attention to these matters in a real and tangible way that is more than lip service (at best) done at select parts of the year.

Ultimately we are at a point in history where I feel that it’s important to insist that access to cooling, just like heating, should be considered a human right. The functionality of a person is run down in the heat just as it is when it’s cold. On the day after Labor Day, it’s truly ironic that politicians and folks who would demand people to be as productive as possible to survive would deny them the capacity to do it in a fuller way. It would… be cool to see this changed.