Manny Crisostomo / Sacramento Bee

Jackie Harris, who is homeless, leaves Loaves and Fishes with her gallon jug of water that was donated and handed out to the homeless gathered at Friendship Park on Tuesday, July 02, 2013. The homeless are struggling through the wave of triple-digit weather. Generally, homeless folks have an aversion toward indoor cooling centers.

Sacramento's homeless struggle to survive heat wave

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 11:34 am

Under a hazy, sweltering afternoon sky, Lucky Proeung stood in his personal "cooling center" - a spot of shade beneath a crape myrtle tree along North B Street in industrial downtown Sacramento.

A damp blue washcloth was perched on his head, and sunglasses shielded his eyes. Inside the trailer attached to his bicycle, he carried a half gallon of tepid water and all of his personal belongings.

Air conditioning is a pipe dream for Proeung and hundreds like him who live on the streets of the capital city. For them, beating the heat requires creativity and resourcefulness.

"Loose clothes. Ice. Water. We can go to the river,"

Proeung, 36, said with a shrug. "We'll survive."

As the Sacramento area bakes this week in a torrid, humid blanket with just a hint of a Delta breeze, officials have opened cooling centers and warned area residents against spending too much time in the heat.

Those are not options for many people who frequent the Loaves & Fishes homeless complex, said Garren Bratcher, director of Friendship Park on the campus.

"I'm worried about some of our guests," Bratcher said, his face drenched in sweat as he helped close down the park Monday afternoon. "I'm very worried about the elderly, and the ones with chronic diseases."

"My biggest problem is that my swimming pool is too hot," Bratcher said. "Their problems are a lot bigger than that."

Area emergency rooms are reporting a slight increase this week in the number of people arriving with medical problems related to extreme heat.

At UC Davis Medical Center, "we're seeing several people each day" with symptoms ranging from dehydration to heat exhaustion, said Dr. Edward Panacek, a professor of medicine and attending physician in the hospital's emergency department.

"We are seeing the whole spectrum," he said. "But things could be a whole lot worse," given the extreme temperatures and high humidity.

"I think people are doing a pretty good job of taking precautions."

Symptoms of mild dehydration, including dry mouth and leg cramps, can be treated at home with copious amounts of shade and water, he said. But people who feel light-headed, exhausted or confused during or immediately after exposure to the heat should seek emergency medical care, he said.

Young children, seniors and people who take certain medications for chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable, Panacek said.

Certain medicines, including some psychiatric and heart drugs, interfere with the body's ability to cool itself through perspiration, he said.

"Homeless people who are mentally ill and on these types of medications are uniquely at risk and really need to get indoors if possible," said Panacek.

At Loaves & Fishes, which closes at around 3 p.m., the heat has not only caused physical discomfort, Bratcher said. It seems to have ratcheted up anxiety levels among some park patrons, shortening emotional fuses and sparking arguments. "Other people are just shutting down completely," he said. "They don't want to move."

Katherine Gallagher, 27, pushed a stroller across the Loaves campus, her face flushed and perspiration beading on her forehead as she made her way to the Mustard Seed School, where her three children attend classes.

"It's pretty rough being out here on a day like this," said Gallagher, whose housing situation has been precarious since an eviction earlier this year. A recent graduate of the Women's Empowerment job program, she plans to crash at a relative's place until she can obtain a job and federally subsidized housing, she said.

"I hope it happens soon."

A constellation of cooling centers has opened across the region this week, but officials said few people were taking advantage of them. Nevertheless, the plan is to keep them open through Thursday.

Many homeless people are unwilling or unable to take advantage of such services, Bratcher said. Some have pets that the centers are unwilling to accommodate. Some are fearful of authorities finding out about outstanding criminal offenses such as unpaid light-rail tickets, he said. Some are without money or transportation to get to the centers. A few, he said, simply prefer to battle the elements on their own.

"They may not have showered in a while. They are self-conscious and feel that they don't fit in," said Bratcher.

The city and county opened the cooling centers in an effort to prevent the heat wave from turning deadly, as in 2006 when 13 people perished.

But Steve Cantelme, interim chief of the Sacramento Office of Emergency Services, said no more than a few dozen people have taken advantage of them so far.

Homeless men and women, he said, prefer to get help from familiar service providers, "and your average Joe Citizen rarely accesses cooling centers," mostly because of their sparse accommodations.

"There's no TV, there's not much to do," said Cantelme. "So people tend to head to the mall, movie theaters, libraries and restaurants" instead.

"We highly recommend it," Cantelme said. "There are more amenities, good people-watching and, if you end up at the mall, it's a good excuse to shop."

The heat is expected to linger for at least a couple of more days, with the forecast calling for highs of 100 degrees or above today and on the Fourth of July holiday. If that prediction holds, it would make seven straight days of triple digit weather.

Loaves & Fishes, which this week has been distributing bottled water to patrons, is asking for donations of water and other items, including booties to protect the feet of pets owned by homeless people.

"I am telling our guests to look for the shade and sprinklers," said Bratcher. "I suspect a lot of people will go out to the river, and hopefully the park rangers will turn a blind eye to folks who are just trying to escape the heat."

Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @cynthia_hubert.

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