Climate change is making homelessness worse — but experts say we can help

Our overheating planet is destroying people's homes, putting undue strain on the folks that don't have any

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 15, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

A Phoenix resident rests under shade while seeking protection from the sun and heat at the Human Services Campus during a record heat wave in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 18, 2023. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
A Phoenix resident rests under shade while seeking protection from the sun and heat at the Human Services Campus during a record heat wave in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 18, 2023. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

As climate change worsens, extreme weather events are becoming more common and more intense, from heat waves to floods to freak storms. For the most part, people can escape these events by going inside. But for the unhoused, things are obviously not so easy. For people without housing, they are the most vulnerable to dramatic shifts in climate, as they cannot easily cool off during a heat wave, warm up when it is below freezing or protect themselves from elements like fire, wind, rain and snow.

"Communities have to prioritize increasing affordable housing."

Additionally, as millions more become climate refugees thanks to their homes being wiped out by fires or floods, the number of unhoused people will significantly increase. A report from UNICEF released last year found that 43 million children have been displaced by climate disasters in just a five year period while another report released in January from the anti-homelessness nonprofit Community Solutions sheds light on how the climate change impact on homelessness is not a looming threat; it is a present crisis, one that continues to get worse.

The report includes a number of bleak statistics. Unhoused people in California comprise 13% of heat-related hospitalizations despite making up less than 1% of the state's population; one in 10 U.S. residential properties were damaged by extreme weather in 2021; and African Americans disproportionately live in areas that are projected to have the greatest increases in climate-related mortality. Most importantly, though, the Community Solutions report broke down how climate change fuels homelessness in a vicious, self-sustaining cycle.

"Climate change intensifies extreme weather events, subjecting people experiencing homelessness (PEH) to dangerous conditions," said Adam Ruege, director of strategy and evaluation at Community Solutions. Even people with homes are — as climate change-caused weather like wildfires and hurricanes destroy their residences — more likely to become homeless. This is especially true for marginalized populations.

"Vulnerable communities, including people of color, the global majority, and low-income individuals, are more likely to live in areas most affected by climate change, leading to greater displacement and homelessness risks," Ruege said, citing the IPCC's 2022 report showing that more than 20 million people are displaced every year due to extreme weather events. Climate change is also expected to drive between 32 million and 132 million people into extreme poverty during this decade.

"For example, recent findings suggest that roughly 2% of PEH in California — where the highest number of structures were lost to wildfire in 2022 — had lost their housing due to a fire or another natural disaster," Ruege said.

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"Vulnerable communities, including people of color, the global majority, and low-income individuals, are more likely to live in areas most affected by climate change."

Sean Kidd, a senior scientist and psychologist at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (who was not involved in the Community Solutions report), supported Ruege's conclusions about climate change both exacerbating the suffering of homelessness while creating more unhoused people. Kidd also observed that the predicament is more dire for people in poorer countries.

"Globally, particularly in low income contexts, climate change has profound impacts on access to safe housing and subsistence – leading to large scale migration within and between countries – affecting health and wellbeing and compounding issues related to homelessness," Kidd said. "For instance, communities who are significantly impacted by climate change in Latin America and Africa do not have a 'safety net' that will support and ensure that they do not experience homelessness and severe poverty."

For nations that are fortunate enough to be able to provide a safety net for their homeless citizens, Ruege offered concrete suggestions about ways they can help.

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"Communities can develop disaster preparedness plans inclusive of people experiencing homelessness," Ruege said. "Tailoring disaster response plans to include provisions for homeless populations, such as emergency shelters and health services during extreme weather events, can provide immediate protection."

Ruege also suggested that local leaders improve urban infrastructure so that it reduces heat, and in particular the urban heat island effect. Expanding access to health services to all populations, particularly when they involve heat-related and respiratory conditions, may also offset the growing health crisis involved in climate change.

"Lastly, communities have to prioritize increasing affordable housing," Ruege said. "Investing in affordable and resilient housing reduces homelessness and ensures that housing can withstand extreme weather, thereby preventing displacement due to climate change."

Although Ruege talks about ways for people to avoid displacement as a result of climate change, to a certain extent experts agree that no one can hide from climate change. "Temperature is just too fundamental and inescapable, and drives so many process changes in the Earth system — everything is connected," Dr. Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist, told Salon in January. (Kalmus made clear he was speaking for himself, not for NASA or the federal government.) While some places are more unsafe than others — Kalmus singled out Miami and Phoenix as two cities where he has "no plans to move" — ultimately "there is no safe place."

Kalmus also noted that becoming a climate refugee is not as easy as simply making a choice to move out of a suddenly-uninhabitable location. Uprooting one's life is inherently difficult, and the current geopolitical climate is not exactly welcoming to would-be climate migrants.

"It's hard for most people to find the available energy, time and mental bandwidth to voluntarily move somewhere else, especially to avoid a diffuse threat that is getting gradually stronger every year," Kalmus. "Moving is expensive, and poorer people around the world are perhaps becoming less welcome in other nations as authoritarianism and fascism rise around the world." 

Since all of these conditions are only going to increase the prevalence of homelessness, Kidd advises that the most responsible thing for governments to do is start addressing the underlying socio-economic and health disparities that cause suffering among PEH.

"Individuals experiencing homelessness have higher risks of heat stroke, dehydration and respiratory diseases," Kidd said. "In addition, because of the systemic inequity, they are more exposed but have less access to resources to mitigate and adapt to climate-related risks. Homeless individuals, who frequently face limitations on their mobility, might find their social networks significantly constrained. This reduction in social interactions can have an impact on their mental well-being. In fact, another risk factor for death from extreme heat is social isolation." 

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Climate Change Furthering Global Warming Heat Homelessness Unhoused People