Amy Pawloski had a “deep-down feeling” about her brother the day the officer called.
It was the morning of June 29, the day after temperatures in the Seattle area hit 108 degrees, and she had been worried about Michael Pawloski all weekend. He lived outdoors in Woodinville, the small city in King County wine country where he spent much of his childhood, and had been homeless for more than a decade.
The call from Woodinville police confirmed Pawloski’s worst fears. A gas station customer found Michael that afternoon slumped behind the building, still wearing the coat that held most of his possessions. The 61-year-old died of heat stroke.
Michael Pawloski was one of several people presumed to be homeless who are confirmed or suspected to have died because of the recent heat wave in Washington state. The number of heat-related deaths overall is expected to grow as coroners and medical examiners conduct additional analyses in the coming weeks.
Another homeless 62-year-old man died of hyperthermia in Jefferson County, and Snohomish County officials suspect hyperthermia as the cause of death for a 49-year-old homeless man who died in Arlington. The cause of death for a 31-year-old woman who was found wearing several layers of clothing under a tree in Shelton is also still under investigation, as is the death of another man living without shelter who often stayed near an Olympia church.
Amy Pawloski believes her brother would have survived had he been indoors, but deaths like his represent a worrying signal: As extreme weather becomes more common and chronic homelessness grows across the United States — an estimated 15% increase between 2019 and 2020 — people who are homeless for long periods of time face some of the deadliest consequences outside. At the same time, many are also often the least able to make lifesaving decisions to come inside.
“I’m shocked, but then I’m not, because unfortunately when people are in this kind of heat it just delays your train of thought and you become numb to the world,” Amy Pawloski said. “I’m sure he was thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ll be fine, I’ll tough it out, I’ve made it through so many winters and so many summers.’ ”
In Michael’s case, a cooling center at Woodinville City Hall was a 6-minute walk away from where he was found. No one showed up to seek refuge in the lobby of the building on the hottest day, according to the city, and the building closed at 5 p.m. that Monday, 13 minutes before temperatures reached a high of 108 degrees at Sea-Tac Airport.
David Hondula, a researcher of heat and health at Arizona State University, said deaths like Pawloski’s are similar to many other heat-death cases across the country. In Maricopa County, where Hondula lives and works, more than 300 people died of causes related to heat last year, an enormous increase compared to the death tally he’s seen in years past.
“In my career memory, we used to say we averaged nearly 100 heat-related deaths in the county, and we had 323 last year,” Hondula said. “I feel confident that a large portion of that increase is simply we have more people living here without shelter and we don’t have sufficient, basic social service programs to protect them.”
Hondula has estimated that the risk for heat-related death for people who are homeless ranges from at least 100 times higher to 200 times higher than the general population.
Kevin O’Neill, assistant to the Woodinville city manager, said the city has seen an uptick in visible homelessness in the last six months. Some of it, he suspects, is because the city doesn’t have an outdoor camping ban, unlike other King County cities that have restricted camping in recent months.
“We’re a very small city, less than 50 full-time employees,” O’Neill said. “We don’t really have the existing resources to spare at this point. So moving forward, that’s something we’re still evaluating, how we’re going to address this.”
Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy who researches homelessness at the University of Pennsylvania, said that during extreme weather, it’s important for jurisdictions to consider that the experience of homelessness can become a disabling condition on its own, especially over time.
“Disability means in many cases that you’re not able to do things essential to your own health and survival,” Culhane said.
Many people who have been chronically homeless have also had negative experiences within the homeless services system, Culhane said, something that can factor into decisions about whether to accept help that is offered in times of crisis.
“Their experience of the shelters, for example, is that they’re crowded, they are often the targets of abuse because they’re vulnerable, they are often shunned within these facilities by others,” Culhane said. “And so their experience is that the shelters sort of represent what’s bad about homelessness.”
Amy Pawloski said her brother briefly spent time in the Nickelsville tent encampment in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood more than a decade ago, but quickly became overwhelmed.
“He couldn’t handle the families and children, and so he just opted to find a place wherever he could outside, or somewhere that may protect him,” Pawloski said.
Hondula said he’s seen cases like Pawloski’s where people die near cooling centers — though it’s unclear to what extent people are made aware of those facilities, he added.
Emergency responses like cooling centers, he said, are “not enough to prevent what we believe to be completely preventable heat-related deaths and illnesses.”
If government wants to prevent those deaths, Hondula suggests they’re going to have to think about investing in upstream solutions, like substance-use treatment.
Frances Rice, a friend of the Pawloski family who continued to visit Michael when he lived outside, said he saw him just a few days before he died. Pawloski didn’t want to be found by many other people, Rice said, and he would tell stories about being honked at or receiving rude gestures from passersby.
“I tried to tell him, ‘Mike, I don’t know where you think village acceptance (comes from), but you’re scary looking,'” Rice said. “You’re going to scare a gentleman walking with a daughter on the sidewalk. You live in a very wealthy part of the country. You’ve chosen to stay here. The people are younger and younger all the time, and big incomes all around. And you give them a little culture shock when they see you.”
“He just wanted to be accepted,” Rice said.
Michael loved to talk to people and tell stories, his sister said, but he also struggled with chronic alcoholism and two years ago was severely beaten while living outside. The assault resulted in neurological damage, and he lost some of the use of his left arm.
“He managed to crawl to a 76 station when they opened that morning,” Amy Pawloski said. “They found him and took him to [the hospital].”
Two years after the assault, the same officer who worked on the case called Pawloski to tell her that her brother was dead, she said.
“He probably figured he’d tough it out and make it,” Pawloski said. “On a day like that the shade didn’t do justice.”