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The Daily Tar Heel

Extreme heat hits Orange County, community provides relief

Chapel Hill residents walk down Franklin Street on a warm sunny afternoon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

The recent extreme heat in Orange County has posed problems for community members, especially people experiencing homelessness and people with pre-existing conditions.

Many organizations — including the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, the Orange County Public Library and the Chapel Hill Public Library — have opened their doors to allow people to cool off and receive help during the July and August heat. Showers are also available to the public at the Chapel Hill Community Center, the Hargraves Community Center and the Homestead Aquatic Center.

Xuewei Wang, a data scientist at Data-Driven EnviroLab, said heat can have negative effects on vulnerable communities, especially if they do not have access to cooling or green spaces.

“I definitely believe the more severe, more frequent heat wave will have more impact on unhealthy populations, especially people with conditions,” she said.

Wang said the lab is having discussions with the Town of Chapel Hill about building more green spaces for shade. She also said she has seen success with painting roads lighter so they can reflect the heat instead of absorbing it.

Rachel Waltz, the manager of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, said the OCPEH works with similar organizations to increase permanent housing options and provide emergency response services for those experiencing homelessness. She said homelessness can increase the risk of heat exposure and health impacts.

“Folks who are living unsheltered are at greater risk for all of those health conditions that are often times made worse by extreme weather,” Waltz said.

Obtaining outpatient healthcare services is harder for people experiencing homelessness, which causes a heavier reliance on emergency services, she said.

“Communities need to just increase permanent housing options for folks, but they also need to be working together to bring their individual expertise together in order to mitigate the health concerns and health risk,” she said.

Waltz said Orange County service providers are working to alleviate the burdens of the housing crisis, but that people experiencing homelessness still face obstacles. One of these obstacles, she said, includes not having always-open bathrooms with showers in downtown Chapel Hill.

She said people experiencing homelessness have talked about how the current system impacts their ability to live their lives.

“When you have nowhere to go during the day, when you have nowhere safe to sleep at night, you can’t help but be impacted by issues of climate change and heat exposure,” Waltz said.

Stephani Kilpatrick, the IFC development and communications manager, said the goal is to meet people where they are and provide low-barrier assistance to them. She said she recognizes that having housing is the first step to alleviating heat problems.

“A lot of times when people get into a stable housing situation that is not a shelter, a lot of other issues can be cleared up more quickly,” she said. 

Without access to vehicles, Kilpatrick also said that those who have to walk or use public transit are disproportionately impacted by the heat. She said that in these cases, people have to be outside in high temperatures for longer periods of time.

Kilpatrick said she thinks that when there is an affordable housing crisis, that shows there are not enough resources available for the community, no matter the weather. 

“People think of Orange County as a wealthy community that doesn’t have a problem with poverty, but that’s completely not true,” Kilpatrick said.


@DTHCityState | 

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