No shelter from the storms: Climate change and homelessness

by Princella Talley

Last month, when Winter Storm Uri hit the South and West, it caused deaths and massive power outages due to freezing temperatures. Nearly 80 people were reported dead, including six people in Texas who were unsheltered and homeless.

The cost of repairing the damage will be in the billions, but the impact on people who are experiencing homelessness is incalculable.

Climate change increases the possibility of unsheltered homelessness because more people are unexpectedly losing their homes. As natural disasters increase in frequency and intensity, more residents throughout the South are becoming displaced.

In Texas, 6,000 homes in Jefferson County were flooded when Tropical Storm Imelda brought more than 40 inches of rain. When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, more than 135,000 homes were in the path of its destruction. In Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina was estimated to have destroyed 800,000 homes.

Most recently, Hurricane Laura damaged more than 130,000 residences and completely destroyed 10,000 homes.

In all, these storms put more than 1 million people at risk of unsheltered homelessness — and that’s just in Texas and Louisiana.

Federal and state investments in climate solutions should include funding for placement services that protect and house those in need — especially those who don’t have four walls to shelter their bodies as temperatures rise and fall unnaturally.

These individuals, forced to live outdoors with limited access to medical care and basic human necessities, are more at risk of heat stroke and hypothermia. Heatstroke can strike within 15 minutes, and hypothermia in 10 minutes or less.

Black, indigenous and other people of color are most at risk of becoming homeless. But this is an issue that reaches across all demographics.

During the past decade, some 20 million people per year have been rendered homeless by environmental disasters, according to the World Economic Forum. Failure to act on climate is expected to double the number of deaths related to air pollution worldwide by 2050. If this happens, unsheltered homeless people would bear this burden most significantly, as they constantly inhale outdoor air.

Already, the life expectancy of people who become unsheltered homeless has been calculated to be almost 20 years shorter. More than 500,000 Americans live homeless each day, and at least 35% of them have no shelter at all.

Shelters offer limited capacity to meet social distancing guidelines created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other public places such as stores, where unsheltered homeless people could often step inside to escape dangerous cold or heat, are closing earlier or shutting down permanently. As a result, unsheltered homeless people are being left to fend for themselves against the elements.

The effects of climate change on homeless people need more than a mention. Severe climate impacts from storms like Uri should remind us of the many people whose lives are at risk even as they remain invisible to the public at large. For climate policy to not address the crisis of homelessness is a disservice to humanity.

Princella Talley is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.