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Phoenix is making changes to cooling centers to protect more people from heat


Record-breaking heat in Phoenix last summer killed an unprecedented 645 people. So this year, officials are expanding the hours cooling centers are available in hopes of saving more lives. Katherine Davis-Young of member station KJZZ reports.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: In mid-July last year, when temperatures were climbing as high as 119 degrees, Raquel Parra was inside a cooling center run by a charitable organization. She'd been living in a tent for several months following an eviction. She'd been coming here every day to cool off. The problem was the cooling center was only open during the day. At night, she'd go back to the tent.

RAQUEL PARRA: You're still in the heat. Whether the sun goes down or not, it's still hot outside.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Phoenix has seen homelessness increase about 50% in just 5 years. Shelters across the metro area are full. Temperatures never dropped out of the 90s most nights last July. Parra had been selling her plasma just to afford occasional stays in a motel, but she was struggling on most other nights, when she couldn't get out of the heat. A few times, she even called 911.

PARRA: I was throwing up the whole night. I couldn't even eat nothing. I just couldn't put my head up. I was just out of it. The dehydration - it really got to me that day.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Officials found a third of heat-related 911 calls like Parra's happened at times when most heat relief sites were not open. So for the first time ever this year, the city is offering a 24/7 cooling center.

RACHEL MILNE: We're going to be taking away some of these countertops and really just making it a welcoming place, with some chairs and tables.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions director Rachel Milne gave me a preview recently of a little room in the corner of the city's central Burton Barr Library. Across the Phoenix area, there's a seasonal heat relief network that includes cooling sites run by churches or nonprofits, as well as public buildings. Milne says, for decades, the flagships of this patchwork system have been libraries.

MILNE: Anyone can come in. We supply them with water. It's a safe place to be. But our libraries close, for the most part, at 5 p.m.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Now, this room in this library is open at all hours. There are no beds. It's not meant as a shelter, and visitors who arrive after hours don't have access to the main part of the library. But the site does offer water, bathrooms and enough space for about 50 people at a time to sit in air conditioning. It's staffed by security and navigators who can connect visitors with whatever services they might need.

MILNE: Are they possibly experiencing homelessness? Did their air conditioning go out at their home, and they're just looking for a cool place to be?

DAVIS-YOUNG: The city is also extending hours to 10 p.m. at three other library branches and adding overnight hours at a senior center for the first time. David Hondula directs the city's Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. He's hopeful these changes could make a big public health impact.

DAVID HONDULA: So I think we might see fewer 911 calls in those overnight and extended hours, but I think we might even see fewer 911 calls the next morning or the next afternoon.

DAVIS-YOUNG: None of this is cheap. The 24-hour library site alone will cost nearly $600,000 for round-the-clock staffing through September. Funding is pieced together from federal pandemic aid. That money runs out in 2026, so there's no guarantee these programs will last beyond this summer. Hondula says the costs are well-justified.

HONDULA: We're hopeful and we have some confidence that the measures the city has taken have saved lives over the past few summers and prevented the impacts from being worse.

DAVIS-YOUNG: But heat-related deaths in Maricopa County have broken new records every year since 2016. Hondula says the goal still is to find the right interventions to start turning that trend around.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIZ KHALIFA SONG, "MEZMORIZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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