The city of Phoenix set heat records in summer 2023, with high temperatures that topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) for 31 consecutive days and at least 54 days in total. In such conditions, providing basic services – including cool spaces – for people experiencing homelessness is lifesaving.
In 2022, 420 people – many of them unsheltered – died in Phoenix from heat-related causes. Estimates are not yet available for summer 2023, but given this year’s extreme conditions, the toll is expected to be higher.
For the past two years, we have worked as researchers with the Human Services Campus, a 13-acre complex in Maricopa County, Arizona, where 16 nonprofit organizations work together to help people who are experiencing homelessness. The campus includes Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, Phoenix’s largest homeless emergency shelter, which assists 800 people experiencing homelessness on any given night.
Our work includes talking with staff and clients to better understand their challenges and identify possible solutions that draw from our work in the fields of architecture, health and social innovation.
Dormitories at CASS protect residents from extreme heat with a bunk to sleep in, day rooms for socializing, case management services, and sanitary shower and restroom facilities. But CASS struggles to provide dignified spaces that offer privacy, storage space and quiet environments. People need this kind of environmental support in order to battle recurring physical and mental health issues that often accompany homelessness and can hinder or prevent healing.
As of 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that the U.S. had nearly 600,000 homeless people nationwide, with about 60% living in emergency shelters, safe havens or transitional housing. The other 40% lived outdoors or in places such as abandoned buildings and public transit stations.
Homeless centers must conform to architectural standards for emergency shelter. These standards have historically been influenced by institutional building design, which prioritizes attaining minimum conditions needed to keep people alive. Today, many homeless shelters struggle to provide even that level of care.
The Human Services Campus was originally constructed in 2003 to provide consolidated services and a coordinated entry plan for people experiencing homelessness. However, it was intended to be part of a larger system of shelters, not the sole service provider for Phoenix’s estimated 9,000 homeless people.
The city’s homeless population has grown, in part because of unprecedented rent increases and a lack of affordable housing. During this summer’s heat wave, nearly 1,200 unsheltered homeless people lived on sidewalks surrounding the campus, many in tents, with limited access to bathrooms and sanitation facilities.
When asked about causes of homelessness, policymakers and members of the public often point to mental illness and addiction, as well as a lack of affordable housing. They tend to pay less attention to the underlying impacts of past trauma other than noting that many women become homeless to escape domestic violence.