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NEW: As Fairfax County heats up, advocates seek more options to cool off unhoused residents

Sun glare with clouds (via Ritam Baishya/Unsplash)

With the D.C. area’s summer heat in full swing, local organizers worry that there are too few options for unhoused residents in the county to cool down.

Last month, the Fairfax County NAACP approved a resolution calling on Fairfax County to improve heat relief services for low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness in the county.

“Summer temperatures and storm frequencies are increasing due to climate change, thus homeless people are at greater risk of health impacts and even death,” says the resolution approved by the civil rights organization’s executive committee on July 28.

Potential solutions proposed by the resolution include a pilot program like D.C.’s heat emergency plan, better communication of hours and locations for the county’s cooling centers, vouchers to families for motel rooms, and distributions of water bottles, personal fans, and sunscreen at government centers.

In response to the resolution, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee directed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide the county’s current heat emergency plan.

In a memo dated July 29, DHHS listed a number of options available for cooling down. It also agreed to “enhance our efforts” and enact more “immediate action” for the county’s unhoused residents in need of relief from the August heat and humidity:

This work includes addressing transportation access gaps, evaluating both the variety and coordination of supply disbursements (both direct provision and at our cooling sites), considering the use of hotel vouchers in the event overflow shelters are at capacity, and providing a more robust communications plan as well as additional opportunities to provide direct communication outreach to individuals in need.

Additionally, NAACP officials tell FFXnow that a committee will meet tomorrow (Aug. 12) to discuss more solutions and ways to better help those in need.

Mary Paden, who chairs the NAACP’s Fair and Affordable Housing Committee, says she’s encouraged by the county’s willingness to listen and work with the group. But action needs to happen now, considering there are likely plenty of very hot days still left in the summer.

“Many [unhoused residents] are older and sick and are more affected by the heat than a younger, healthier person,” Paden said. “It took deaths for the hypothermia program to get set up in the winter…and you wonder if we have to wait for a death to get really serious about taking care of people in the heat.”

The county recently launched a cooling center landing page and released a Google map of about 50 facilities that are available as cooling centers.

But Paden notes that many unhoused residents do not have devices or readily-available internet service. She says a more robust communication strategy is needed that incorporates text messages, physical signs, and volunteers who can meet people where they are to tell them about the cooling centers.

The facilities themselves may also present challenges, since many are only open during daytime hours, and some visitors may feel unwelcome.

“Sometimes when [unhoused residents] go to certain places, they don’t feel welcome,” Paden said. “Even some of the libraries I’ve heard are not real welcoming.”

Fairfax County Public Library will cut its hours starting Sunday (Aug. 14) due to staffing shortages. Branches will only be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days of the week.

Fairfax County NAACP President Karen Campblin calls the cutting of library hours an “absolute shame,” noting that libraries are important beyond simply checking out books.

“People don’t realize how critical libraries are on a community level,” she said. “It has a very integral role to play for the unhoused…for the elderly, who may go there for a social connection. It’s such a shame that the library doesn’t get the support it really needs to be able to function as it really should.”

When asked about how FCPL’s reduced hours might affect unhoused residents seeking shelter from the heat, the county’s Director of Public Affairs Tony Castrilli pointed to community centers and rec centers as additonal cooling options.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says climate change is and will continue to take an “unquestionable human toll,” and the county is working to “help our most vulnerable residents.”

Fairfax County’s response to our changing climate has been dynamic and thoughtful throughout. There is unquestionably a human toll from increasingly hot summers and unpredictable winters and the County is acting to alleviate this. We provided shelter throughout the cold months to ensure that all who sought a warm place to sleep and access to food and basic hygiene resources had these necessities, and we have continued to do the same for the summer months.

All county buildings are cooling centers, and anyone is welcome to come and avail themselves of our climate-controlled facilities. Additionally, our shelters have a no-turnaway policy during these hottest weeks to ensure all who seek a cool place can take a break. We have partnered with multiple non-profit and faith organizations to provide water, sunscreen, and other heat-relieving products to those who need them, as well as shelter from the heat.

Additionally, we have publicized and continue to do so through all our media outlets the location and availability of facilities to cool off. In short, we are not just taking this problem seriously but acting on a daily and hourly basis to help our most vulnerable residents, and we will continue do so throughout the summer and beyond.

Paden suggests there are relatively simple, short-term solutions the county can pursue to help unhoused residents beat the heat, like distributing handheld misting fans and setting up outdoor cooling centers with industrialized fans.

The NAACP will focus on these remaining concerns at Friday’s committee meeting. After that, Paden hopes to take the county’s plans directly to the community.

“What we want to do is get some [unhoused residents] to review the county’s plans,” she said. “I’ll ask, ‘Is this what you want? What could be done to make your life easier?'”

The root of the problem is the lack of permanent, supportive housing, Campblin and Paden say, but in the short term, accessible cooling centers could be life-saving for those most at risk from the heat, a problem that’s only going to get worse.

“Besides the heat, the other danger is these sudden storms and flooding that comes afterward,” Paden said. “Many people camp under bridges and near [bodies of water], so they know about the flooding. It’s only going to increase with climate change.”

Photo via Ritam Baishya/Unsplash

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