When temperatures began to climb above 90 degrees Sunday morning, Sophia was one of the few people waking up on one of the 73 mats laid out on the floor of Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, an emergency cooling center set up by the city and The Salvation Army.
She and her husband typically bounce around downtown, sometimes in a tent. But when an outreach worker told Sophia, 50, that Fisher Pavilion would be open during the potentially life-threatening heat wave over the weekend, the couple decided to come inside.
“My concern is just staying hydrated and also being able to bathe,” said Sophia, who declined to give her last name because of privacy concerns.
In a city generally ill-prepared for extreme weather, few residents are as vulnerable to the effects of the heat as Seattleites who are poor, thousands of whom live outside. Those who have dealt with chronic homelessness often have disabilities that become potentially deadly in extreme heat, and people in low-income housing or on fixed incomes faced a stark choice as the rest of the city scrambled for fans and air-conditioning units: pay potentially hundreds of dollars from meager checks to get air-conditioning units, or preserve money for other necessities and tough out the days to come.
Inside the Fisher Pavilion cooling center, Salvation Army staffers were on high alert for heat exhaustion.
“If someone is excessively sweating, or someone is excessively tired during the day, we’re checking on them,” said Salvation Army Northwest Division operations director Simon Foster. “We’re talking with them, we’re asking them to sit up, provide them water, and if necessary call an emergency response.”
The city’s HOPE Team — outreach workers coordinating with city staff — started handing out water and flyers advertising the cooling center before the weekend, according to the city’s Human Services Department, and would be out in the field doing the same and performing wellness checks on Saturday and Sunday. But by Sunday afternoon, many of the nearly 4,000 people estimated to be living outside in Seattle were still trying to fend for themselves. Temperatures that reached an all-time record high of 104 degrees in Seattle on Sunday were expected to be even higher on Monday.
Maranda Stidham, 36, worried how her husband, a veteran with a kidney disorder, and her 6-year-old pit bull, Bully, would survive the heat. The family lives in a tent and RV on a strip of hot cement on a Georgetown industrial road, and by 1 p.m., outreach workers hadn’t been by yet with water. Stidham had been trying to buy ice from stores that were clean out, but luckily managed to bargain for some from local restaurants.
As her husband struggled to stretch a gray tarp into a makeshift awning for shade, Stidham put ice cubes in a doggy bowl and poured some of the water they had over Bully’s neck.
“I wasn’t prepared,” she said.
A few blocks away, José Ortiz had prepared in a slightly different way. The 58-year-old, in sunglasses with a string of purple beads around his neck, basked in the sun from a camping chair while enjoying a “beach” he had assembled in front of the bright yellow school bus where he lives on First Avenue. Ortiz’s employers at a local warehouse had allowed him to take home a bag of sand, which he sprinkled on the sidewalk.
“I like it,” Ortiz said. Friends had been stopping by the beach with requests for shade and water, which Ortiz was happy to provide.
Ortiz had been making the best of it, but he acknowledged that the heat made it difficult to sleep. Morning’s first light turned the bus into an oven, and Ortiz had to go outside.
By Sunday afternoon, poor and disabled Seattleites in low-income housing were also registering their concerns about conditions inside their units with public officials.
At Mercy Magnuson Place, a low-income housing development in northeast Seattle, residents alarmed by windows with limited openings and a lack of air conditioning started emailing Seattle City Council members. Two of those residents, Samantha De Abreu and Taurmini Fentress, passed out donated box fans to neighbors Sunday evening.
In response to the extreme heat, Mercy Housing opened air-conditioned community rooms in Seattle and Tacoma with water and snacks — but not before some residents bought their own supplies.
Scott McAdams, a 67-year-old Mercy resident, gets $880 a month from his Social Security check, but spent $389 on Friday for a portable air-conditioning unit to put in his third-floor studio.
“If I was not to have any air conditioning, it would be 98, 99 [degrees],” McAdams said. “I have one window, it’s high and it opens this wide,” he said, showing a few inches between his index finger and thumb.
“Washington doesn’t usually get these temperatures, but as a person who’s been on this earth for [about] 70 years, climate change is the real deal,” McAdams said. “And [we’re] moving along by only making decisions when the problems come along.”
“We have distributed box fans to residents for their use and are prioritizing their delivery to vulnerable households,” Mercy Housing Northwest President Joe Thompson said by email Sunday. “On Friday, hydration packs were handed out to residents in anticipation of the heat, as was a letter letting them know about available community resources.”
By 5 p.m., Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen had dropped by the housing development to observe some of the complaints from residents.
“There’s not a city-government-sponsored cooling center very close to here,” Pedersen said. “So I’ve reached out to the mayor’s office and the Parks department.”
Jalyssa Elliott, a mother of a 4-year-old in another low-income building next door, said she worried about her neighbors. Elliott lives in units reserved for people with disabilities, and while she already had a portable air conditioner when the heat broke out, her neighbors with limited mobility had few ways to cool off, she said.
“We have the lowest income, the most disabled, no air conditioning,” Elliott said.