Code Red: Why it can be more dangerous for Philly’s homeless on hot summer days than the dead of winter

Tomas Castelazo

Temperatures today could reach as high as 88 degrees, and throughout this week, it’s gon’ get hot.

In the summertime months when the heat in the city can force Philadelphia indoors to escape from the sun beating down, Philadelphia’s 6,000 homeless remain especially vulnerable. During these times, city officials work to get the homeless indoors with a higher intensity.

Similar to what the Office of Supportive Housing does in the winter months with “Code Blue,” the same agency declares a “Code Red” in the summer when the National Weather Bureau predicts weather conditions that could be dangerous to people living on the streets.

In Philly, a Code Red is declared if the National Weather Service’s extended weather forecast includes at least three consecutive days of 95-degree or above temperatures with high humidity. In these situations, an official NWS excessive heat warning is not needed to initiate a Code Red.

Marie Nahikian, director of the city’s Office of Supportive Housing, told Billy Penn that the Code Red designation works in a similar way as the wintertime Code Blue — it triggers a stronger, 24-hour mobilization of outreach efforts aimed to get the city’s homeless indoors, even if they’re people are taken to shelter involuntarily.

Between the Office of Supportive Housing, the Department of Behavioral Health and through the nonprofit Project HOME, the city has more than 35 outreach coordinators assigned to different geographic areas who are tasked with locating homeless citizens and working with them to seek shelter to get out of the heat and avoid risking heat-related illness. Project HOME reports that its coordinators reach 2,200 people a year.

Nahikian said the Code Red designation aimed at keeping homeless residents out of the heat also triggers new actions taken by homeless shelters in the city, namely that the shelters do not discharge in the morning, so folks are allowed to stay indoors for the day.

“This is a good thing on one hand,” she said, “but not good for anyone new, because shelters are usually then full.”

If that’s the case, the city works to open emergency housing options in other locations to house the homeless in danger of heat-related illness.

If you see a homeless person in distress, or any homeless person during a Code Red, contact the Office of Supportive Housing at 215-686-7150.

In addition to heat-related services for the homeless, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging also operates “Heatline” during the summer, a service that advises callers about how to avoid heat stress and refers those in need of help to Emergency Services. Heatline’s main number is 215-765-9040.

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