Climate change affects us all but there’s one section of the society that suffers more than average due to the climate crisis – the homeless people. Apart from the extreme heat and cold exposure, climate change has severe impacts on the health of homeless population. Not just that, it is also estimated to increase homelessness.
Homeless people are those individuals who sleep in shelters as well as the “absolute homeless” which describes individuals who sleep outdoors or in places not suitable for human habitation. They are the most vulnerable amongst the general population.
The last time a global survey was attempted – by the United Nations in 2005 – an estimated 100 million people were homeless worldwide. As many as 1.6 billion people, more than 20 percent of the world’s population, lacked adequate housing (Habitat, 2015).
The major ways through which climate change affects the homeless population is through increased heat waves, increased air pollution, increased severeity of floods and an increased vulnerability to diseases. The secondary factors may include substance use and lack of nutritious food among many others.
Air pollution can have dire consequences to the health of those who are exposed to it throughout the day and may lead to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. According to a report, mortality could increase by 20-30% by 2050 due to poor air quality.
Climate change is also expected to result in increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Spending large amounts of time outdoors makes homeless people vulnerable to the impacts of floods and storms. Drowning, infectious disease outbreaks and incidences of anxiety and depression following flood and storm disasters were found to increase. As the HUD report noted, close to 1% of the homeless counted in January when the agency takes its sample were in shelters for people displaced by natural disasters, whether Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate, western wildfires, or some other storm or event.
It also makes people more vulnerable to diseases, for example, early onset of spring, as a result of climate change, has increased the range and strength of the West Nile Virus. This virus thrives in warm, dry weather and individuals who sleep outside are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes that carry the virus.
On top of this, with drastic impacts of climate change on a steady rise, the number of homeless population is likely to go up.
Earlier in December, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual report on homelessness, this year called The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
It quoted “Homelessness increased (though modestly) for the second year in a row. The number of homeless people on a single night increased by 0.3 percent between 2017 and 2018. The increase reflects declines in the number of people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs being offset by increases in the number of people staying in unsheltered locations. Between 2017 and 2018, the unsheltered population increased by two percent (or 4,300 people).
Life is already hard when you don’t have a solid roof to live under and yet, these people suffer the consequences of the disasters mostly fueled by other people.