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Unhoused Californians Are Living on the 'Bleeding Edge' of Climate Change

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A man in a baseball cap pulls a shopping cart up a sidewalk.
A man pushes a cart near downtown Fresno on a 108-degree day. Officials estimate about 1,700 people are currently living on Fresno’s streets.  (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

This story is part of the third season of KQED’s podcast Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America. You can find that series here and read about why KQED chose to focus a season of its housing podcast on climate change.

W

hen summer temperatures in Fresno break 100 degrees, Deana Everhart cooks. It’s a rare privilege for a woman without a kitchen or a house.

Marie Callender’s TV dinners are her favorite, and she puts them on the sidewalk to let the sun do an oven’s work.

“They will cook as if they were in a microwave,” she said on a 108-degree day in July. “In about 30 minutes, they’re hot and ready.”

It might be the only perk that’s come with the increasingly hellish summers plaguing her hometown.

At 61, Everhart has lived about 20 years cycling on and off Fresno’s streets. But as she gets older, and the heat waves become more frequent, it’s harder to survive outside.

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This past year has been especially challenging as historic winter storms gave way to a blistering summer. Now, she’s bracing for yet another potentially drenching winter, thanks to El Niño.

Meanwhile, Everhart is caught in the middle of an ever-changing web of policies, put in place by Fresno city leaders who face pressures to reduce street homelessness while mitigating the harm unhoused residents face from deadly weather.

It’s a story playing out across California as our climate and housing crises collide. The number of unsheltered people in California rose 6.5% from 2019 to 2022. The increase is much steeper in Fresno, where unsheltered homelessness has spiked 48% since 2019, the vast majority of that increase during the first year of the pandemic, according to the city.


The heat index is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. As the heat index rises, so does the risk of heat-related illness.

At the same time, the number of dangerously hot days in Fresno has gone up by 17 days a year since 1979. The state is increasingly yo-yoing between periods of drought and heavy rain, a trend that’s particularly pronounced in the Central Valley, where bursts of heavy precipitation easily lead to flooding.

Seniors like Everhart are especially vulnerable to the elements, and living on the streets hastens aging. Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, compared the physical condition of a 50-year-old living outside to that of a person two to three decades older in the general population.

“Folks experiencing homelessness are on the bleeding edge of the health crises that are happening with extremes of temperature,” said Kushel, the lead investigator on a landmark survey of houseless Californians released this year.

It found that people 50 years and older now represent nearly half of single adults experiencing homelessness.

“It’s just hard,” Everhart said. “At my age, everything combined is hard on me.”

‘The most-best shade in all of Fresno’

It was sometime in late spring when Everhart rolled her belongings onto a patch of dirt under an overpass near downtown Fresno. She was thinking about the oncoming heat when she chose the spot, shielded by hundreds of tons of concrete.

“This is the most-best shade, I bet, in all of Fresno, right here,” Everhart said.


The camp she made there with a longtime friend, Shannon Thom, was a jumble of carts and strollers piled with dozens of bulging plastic bags, chairs in various states of disrepair, empty food containers and a molding sheet cake.

“Somebody gave it to us, but it’s already old,” Everhart said. “Out here, you learn to accept stuff.”

A woman in a pink hat leans on a chainlink fence under a freeway overpass.
Deana Everhart, 61, spent the hottest part of the summer sheltering under an overpass near downtown Fresno. She’s been unhoused on and off for about 20 years. “I remember how scared I was the first time sleeping by myself,” she said of her early days on the streets. Today, it’s hard for her to imagine another way of life. While she said she wants housing, the responsibility that comes with it feels daunting. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The living arrangement was chaotic but reflected their years of combined street savvy: cell phones, documents, food and clothes concealed by junky-looking bags were less likely to entice thieves. Allowing trash to build up around them was less likely to draw complaints than throwing it into the dumpster outside a nearby apartment complex.

Over the years, they’ve camped together and developed a system to keep each other and their things safe.

“We take shifts on sleeping because we have to watch the stuff  24/7,” Everhart said.

Her skin is tanned and freckled from years of sun, but there’s something girlish about her. She wears her long, dark hair in low pigtails. In her 20s, Everhart played guitar in an all-girl metal band called Sweet Lies — “Like sweet, but not so sweet,” she said. “We were rocker girls.”

She still seems to relish the spotlight, but these days, she tends to hold her hand in front of her mouth while she talks because she’s shy about her teeth. She can’t always brush them outside.

Everhart’s path to homelessness is entwined with her mental illness. As her obsessive-compulsive disorder became increasingly debilitating, she struggled to hold on to housing. Court records show she has been evicted twice.

Everhart now lives on $1,252 a month in Social Security disability benefits, plus food stamps — less than the median rent in Fresno, which spiked in recent years. Between 2017 and 2021, rents rose almost 40%, the biggest increase of any large city in the country.

Despite her situation, she is less worried about herself than her son, Travis Everhart. He’s 39, has schizophrenia and lives on Fresno’s streets, too.

At the camp, she pointed out a box full of his things and the mat where he sleeps beside her when he’s not wandering the city alone.

The last time she and Thom, 41, shared a room, they said her son was banned from visiting because his psychosis caused him to yell out. Early last summer, after a string of hot days gave him a nasty sunburn that turned his nose the mottled blue-red of raw hamburger meat, Everhart gave up her housing to be closer to him.

“I thought, I’ll go to him,” she said. “I’m trying to keep my son alive.”

A few months later, her anxiety about his well-being reached a new level after the death of his friend, Patrick Weaver, who was also unhoused.

The two were close in age, shared a love of comic books and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, Everhart said, adding, “It’s hard for my son to find a good friend like that.”

Weaver was found dead in a parking lot, according to a city official, at the tail end of a solid month of triple-digit temperatures.

“Devastating is the only word I could think of to describe that,” Everhart said.

She believes heat played a role in Weaver’s death. He died four days after Fresno reached its second hottest temperature on record: 114 degrees.

The Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office has yet to release his death report to KQED but did confirm the official cause was an overdose. Weaver had methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system. Meth raises a person’s body temperature and contributes to heat-related illness and death across California. Almost one-third of unhoused Californians reported using it, according to the UCSF survey Kushel led.

Schizophrenia, which is vastly more common among unhoused people than the general population, affects the brain’s ability to regulate body temperature and make reasoned decisions, potentially putting people at a higher risk of heat-related death.

The number of unhoused people who die due to extreme weather in Fresno, and around California, is hard to know. Historically, most coroners haven’t tracked housing status. KQED public records requests to coroners and medical examiners across the state yielded few results.

But people experiencing homelessness are already far more likely to die than their housed counterparts. Depending on age, studies found that death is three to nine times more common on the streets. And there is some evidence extreme weather worsens those odds.

Unhoused people made up almost half of heat-related deaths in Los Angeles County last year, though they represent less than 1% of the population. In Sacramento County, the death rate among people experiencing homelessness in 2021 from hypothermia was 215.5 times higher than the county rate overall.

A ‘complete disaster’ or a lifesaver?

Faced with the confluence of increasingly deadly weather and a growing homeless population that’s especially vulnerable to it, Fresno city leaders are being forced to respond. Last year, under pressure from advocates, they expanded the city’s warming and cooling centers, the primary resource for unhoused people during extreme weather events.

Cooling centers now open when temperatures reach 100 degrees, instead of 105, and stay open longer.

The bigger change was to warming centers last winter. Because of the heavy rain, city officials voted to keep certain centers open for more than three months straight.

People crowded in, filling them beyond capacity. The community centers, once home to after-school programs, services for the elderly and adult recreational activities, became de facto homeless shelters.

“In response to climate change, we’re having to fundamentally change the use of community centers in neighborhoods,” said City Councilmember Miguel Arias, who represents the district where Everhart and most of the city’s unhoused residents live.

The backlash came fast and loud.

The doors of a large community center are seen beyond a gate with a sign reading "cooling center."
The Ted C. Wills Community Center in Fresno hosts a temporary reprieve during triple-digit heat. In Fresno, like in many cities, warming and cooling centers are the main resource for unhoused people in extreme weather. Changes to Fresno’s centers have generated a backlash from residents in surrounding neighborhoods. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“It was a complete disaster for our neighborhood,” said Chris Collins, who lives with his family directly next to the Ted C. Wills Community Center, one of four recreation centers that became a warming center last winter.

He said someone was living in a tent in the alley behind their house, and more tents lined the sidewalk around the corner. Another person dumped a stroller full of belongings in their front yard, and in the middle of the night, a man pounded on his neighbor’s door and refused to leave until the owner pulled out a gun.

Meanwhile, staff at the center were completely overwhelmed, according to one parks department employee who declined to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak to the media.

People brought alcohol and weapons into the sleeping area, used drugs in the bathroom and left huge messes, according to the staffer. They said before the community center’s preschool program was put on pause, a little girl stepped in human waste and ended up smearing it on her clothes.

Arias acknowledged the challenges. Almost overnight, he said, employees accustomed to running rec rooms were disinfecting cots and triaging ailments ranging from gangrene to diabetic seizures.

“There’s got to be a better solution,” Collins said, adding that neighbors never had a problem with the center operating as it had in the past, a few days at a time.

But as the stretches of wild weather get longer and city leaders are forced to step in, Arias expects this kind of conflict isn’t going away.

“This is one of the many unintended consequences of climate change at the local level,” he said. “And residents will continue to push back on local government as we try to adjust and expand services to save lives.”

The changes that made Collins and his neighbors miserable made the center lifesaving for Everhart, who stayed there nearly the whole time it was open.

“Everybody loved it and most of the people in there were seniors,” she said.

In the past, she rarely used the warming centers because the sporadic schedules made them impractical and people weren’t allowed to bring their belongings inside.

Last winter, she’s not sure how she would have survived without it. “I was truly scared,” she said.

Managing the centers now requires a full-time city employee, and Fresno has already more than doubled what it spends on them, from $300,000 to $800,000, Arias said. By next year, he expects that will rise to $1 million annually.

After the controversy last winter, the city is looking for ways to minimize the impact on neighbors and center staff. The plan is to turn over management to nonprofits and churches, who would run the programs out of the community centers for now, and eventually find alternative facilities, Arias hopes.

A painful family history

Everhart once held jobs, went to community college and had an apartment and a car. There were always signs of her mental illness, but as she grew older, it progressed into a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

By her early 30s, she had four children, no income except what welfare programs supplied and couldn’t manage the responsibilities of parenting or maintaining a home. All of her kids ended up with their grandparents.

“She was not capable of raising children because of how her mental illness affected her way to function,” her daughter Carolyn Mercer, 30, wrote in an email.

Mercer, who was out of her mother’s care by the time she was 2 years old, described her as neglectful.

A car drives up a street set below a freeway overpass.
An overpass along State Route 180, near the place Deana and Shannon camped during the summer. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“I know I wasn’t taking as good of care of the kids as I felt I should,” Everhart said, acknowledging she was struggling with her mental health at the time.

“Having OCD is like working two or three jobs — it’s mentally exhausting,” she said. “I did the best I could. I needed help.”

Since she became homeless, Everhart has only lived indoors for short stretches. She said she lost a room in an SRO because she spent four hours in the shower, convinced she was still covered in soap, and got kicked out of a women’s shelter because she couldn’t keep up with their schedule.

She and Thom said they’re on waiting lists for housing, but Everhart finds the obligations that come with being housed daunting. She was hesitant when asked if she’d take what the city might eventually be able to offer: a converted motel room.

“I’m not opposed to it, but if I have to be out here I’m OK,” she said, adding that she feels a sense of duty to help care for more severely incapacitated people living on the streets. “Maybe I just feel like I need to be out here to help them.”

It’s one responsibility, perhaps the only one, she feels equal to.

A woman stands in the shade under a freeway overpass grasping the post of a street sign.
Shannon Thom, 41, has camped with Deana for the past several years. Living together allows them to sleep in shifts to keep watch over each other and their things. They take turns using the bathroom at a liquor store, or take short breaks from the heat at a nearby cooling center. Shannon grew up in Fresno, bouncing around apartments with her mother and sister. At one point, she ended up homeless with her mother on L.A.’s Skid Row, she said. After her mother and sister died, she was left without any close relatives. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In the winter, she and Thom keep extra blankets and jackets from thrift stores to hand out. She found one man’s family on Facebook and reconnected them, and when another young man wandered over to their camp confused and hungry one afternoon, Everhart was eager to help.

“Honey, if you wait a minute we’ll go to the store over there and get you a cup o’ noodle and we’ll heat it in the microwave and get you a little soda,” she said. “Do you want that?”

She finds purpose in caring for people on the streets, trying in her way to “mother” them — most of all, her own son.

But Everhart’s daughter said she never benefited from this tenderness.

“I finally came to the realization that I will never get the mother I always wanted and needed,” she said. Mercer is no longer in contact with her mother.

She’s come to understand the pain her mother caused her as a legacy of Everhart’s own abuse and neglect.

“All I see in her is a little girl that never got the love and affection she truly deserved from her parents,” she said, speculating that this played a role in the development of Everhart’s mental illness. “I wish she would see the little girl in me that needed that same love, but she never will.”

Still, Mercer can’t help but worry about her mother, aging on the streets.

“It always keeps me up at night when I’m able to keep warm in my home with a heater in the winter or be comfortable with AC in the summer,” she said. “I always feel a sense of guilt that I never know if she’s ‘comfortable’ and safe from the elements outdoors while I’m able to live comfortably.”

Business as usual

Early this past summer, even as Fresno was expanding cooling centers, city leaders were taking aim at unhoused residents with a new law restricting access to any place designated a “sensitive area.

Among the many sites listed as possible targets are overpasses, underpasses and bridges — places where Everhart often finds refuge from heat and rain.

Everhart and Thom fretted about where they would go to avoid the new law.

“We can’t be under here. We thought they were bad — they went from bad to worse,” Everhart said, referring to the city’s Homeless Assistance Response Team. “We’re very scared now.”

A man in a light pink button down shirt stands in front of large brown doors.
Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias outside the entrance to the cooling center at the Ted C Wills community center. He and other city officials are facing pressure from homeowners and businesses to clean up homelessness while advocates simultaneously demand urgent action to protect unhoused people from increasingly extreme weather. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Before they could figure out a plan, the Response Team showed up — a visit that had nothing to do with the new law, as far as Everhart could tell. It was just business as usual.

It was forecast to hit 110 degrees in Fresno that day, and the National Weather Service was warning of a “major to extreme risk” for heat-related illnesses, especially for people with no escape from the elements.

Undeterred, city workers cleared the trash surrounding the camp, then told Everhart and Thom to leave the area.

“You know, it’s real hot,” Everhart recalled telling one of the police officers with the team that responds to complaints about encampments. “Where can we go? I’m 61 years old. You want me to roll my stuff in the 110-degree [heat] and die?”

Sweeps like this one have become routine, but advocates worry the new law, with its heightened restrictions, will make them even more frequent. Fresno city leaders approved the plan despite warnings that the consequences could be dire.

“It’s as though the city council looked for places where people go, where they can find shelter, and singled out those places,” said ACLU attorney William Freeman, who urged the city council not to pass the plan, arguing it violates the constitutions of the United States and California. “Ordinances that essentially require people to constantly be moving and prohibit them from having any fixed place to be just puts tremendous stress on them.”

Arias, one of the council members who put the new rule forward, said it was about ensuring unhoused people and their things don’t block public rights of way, a goal another official chalked up to an attempt to avoid a lawsuit similar to the one Sacramento is facing from residents with disabilities who say homeless camps have taken over sidewalks, making it impossible for them to get around the city.

And, Arias said, clearing encampments is a public health requirement.

A hand holds two bottles of cold water.
Nas, an unhoused man in the Tower District in Fresno, holds cold water bottles given to him by
local advocates with the Fresno Homeless Union, Bob and Linda McCloskey, on July 1, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“When you have the amount of feces, the amount of drug paraphernalia, the amount of rotting food, all in one location, you get outbreaks of disease,” he said. “That’s why we have to respond.”

After city workers left, Everhart and Thom set up their camp again — this time, about 200 feet from where they’d been, still under the same overpass.

The city formed the response team last year, pitching it as a more compassionate alternative to the police department’s former homeless task force. The team includes outreach workers from a local nonprofit, staff from the code enforcement department and police officers. The city rolled it out along with a new 311 line to field complaints about unhoused people.

“Everything we do, everything, revolves around them — trying to evade them,” Everhart said.

She and Thom said the team has thrown away nearly all their possessions several times, a mental and financial blow that can be especially grave in extreme weather. They’ve lost things they need to survive in the heat and the cold, like blankets, clothes, food and water. By Everhart’s count, the response team has shuffled them around the city seven times in less than a year.

Activists here have tried — without success — to get the city to stop sweeps during extreme weather. This past summer, the Sacramento Homeless Union won a temporary injunction banning the city from cleaning encampments during a heat wave, a case Everhart followed closely when she could charge her phone.

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Advocates are pushing for sanctioned encampments where people can set up tents or RVs with the city’s permission and tiny home villages with air conditioning. Everhart has helped them lobby for dumpsters and porta-potties to solve some of the sanitation concerns about camps. Long term, they are fighting for rent control and more affordable housing.

Since 2019, Fresno has spent over $100 million to address homelessness, more than 90% of it on housing, according to the city. It’s permanently housed nearly 1,900 people while sheltering or temporarily putting up more than 3,000.

But the city estimates there are still 1,700 people living on its streets. “And that’s because the unhoused numbers continue to grow,” Arias said.

A  welcome ‘vacation’

In early September, an infected spider bite sent Everhart to the hospital.

She suspects a black widow because she spotted one near where she was sleeping. She had surgery to remove the necrotic flesh on her thumb, and the doctor put in a drain she described as a McDonald’s straw.

“My thumb looks like the zombie apocalypse,” she joked from her hospital bed. “I am not exaggerating either. It looks terrible.”

A couple of weeks earlier, her son, Travis Everhart, went to jail for property damage and resisting arrest. Everhart’s understanding is that he threw some rocks at a car, “because the car was loud,” she said.

She’s glad he’s set to be released in November, but in a way, she’s relieved he’s in jail. At least she knows where he is and that he has food and shelter.

Amid of all this, the hospital, with its air conditioning and bed, is almost a welcome vacation.

“It’s been nice, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “They bring your food, you lay in this comfortable bed that has lots of pillows.”

She met with a social worker there, but when she explained she was already on a waiting list for housing, Everhart said the woman told her there wasn’t much else to do but wait.

When she gets released from the hospital, the plan is to have Thom help her tie a plastic bag around her bandaged hand to keep out the dirt. Their camp is alongside a different stretch of freeway now, where they’ll wait for her son to get out of jail. There, under a tarp and umbrella, they’ll try to shelter from the waning heat and the coming rains.

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