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Closing Argument

Cruel Summer: When Basic Survival Can Become Illegal

Extreme heat heightens the tensions between homeless communities and the police.

A billboard display reads "118 degrees, 5:13pm, Clear Channel Outdoor." A person walking through a parking lot is out of focus in the foreground.
A billboard displays a temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit during a heat wave in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 18.

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In extreme heat, unhoused people are among the most vulnerable. Last year in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, they made up the largest share of heat-associated deaths. The county’s chief medical examiner expects this year’s death toll to be even higher, and the risks are growing more dire as the planet warms. July was Earth’s hottest month on record, and Phoenix weathered a 31-day streak of highs above 110 degrees.

Interactions with the police frequently add stress and complications to unhoused people’s efforts to survive deadly temperatures. Police routinely clear encampments and force individuals off public spaces like parks and sidewalks. They may ticket or arrest people if they don’t leave, or for offenses encountered during sweeps. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department, in part to probe whether officers illegally threw away belongings of people experiencing homelessness while clearing encampments.

Last week, I spoke with Trever Spitzer as he watched over another person’s belongings in the shade of a highway overpass near the eastern border of Phoenix. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees. He worried that police often give little notice before making people leave a site. The last time he experienced this, Spitzer said, he had to scramble to pack his belongings overnight after already being exhausted from the daytime heat.

Spitzer had previously stayed in a large encampment that the neighboring city of Tempe cleared last year. “That was our home,” he said. “Once you kick us out of there, you’re making us homeless.” He described being bounced around, as he tried to find places to camp while still staying close to community and reliable food sources.

This problem extends beyond Arizona — especially as much of the U.S. faces extreme heat. In Sacramento, California, a lawsuit by a community group resulted in a judge preventing the city from clearing encampments until Sept. 1. The order came after Sacramento broke up an encampment in July. The city offered people space in a sanctioned encampment, but many of the unhoused worried that the site was too hot. Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho has threatened legal action against the city if officials do not step up enforcement of a law that bans camping that blocks sidewalks.

A similar political battle is brewing in Missouri, where a new law allows the state attorney general to sue local governments for not enforcing bans on unhoused people camping on public spaces. The law illustrates a broader nationwide push by state-level officials to police what local prosecutors do and do not prosecute. This comes as state legislatures have taken up laws that ban sleeping outside, many which closely resemble a think tank’s model legislation.

Contact with police frequently leads to arrests for unhoused people. Last year, Reveal found that from 2017-2020, they made up a disproportionately large share of arrests in several large Western cities, including Sacramento. Often, these arrests are for minor offenses such as loitering or having belongings in public areas, or for parole violations or bench warrants for old offenses.

In some places, those providing aid to unhoused people say police and city governments are impeding efforts to help. Austin Davis, an organizer who works with homeless community members in Tempe, told me that displacement hinders people’s efforts to get help regarding housing affordability, addiction and mental health. “How could you ever start to address those complicated issues when your whole day is spent trying to find a place to keep your stuff?” Davis said.

Earlier this year in Houston, police issued citations to members of a group who offered free meals outside the city’s downtown library. After some of the cases were dropped because police did not appear in court, the city said it would re-file. The city has also stopped using the library as a cooling center during heat emergencies. In New Orleans, city council members are considering an ordinance that would place restrictions on how organizations can distribute food. Proponents say they want to keep distribution sites clean, but critics call the measure unnecessary criminalization.

In many communities, police have the seemingly conflicting tasks of enforcing restrictions on unhoused people while also doing outreach to connect these residents with social services. In Blythe, California, which saw July temperatures reach 120 degrees, the police chief used grant money to allow an officer to focus on outreach work — until the funds ran out. In Wichita, Kansas, members of the police Homeless Outreach Team distribute water and provide rides to daytime cooling shelters during extreme heat.

The ways police engage with unhoused people, particularly in the West, are largely governed by Martin v. Boise, a 2018 federal appeals court decision that said the government could not criminalize people for sleeping outdoors when adequate shelters were not available. Still, a judge’s order in a lawsuit by business and homeowners in Phoenix forced the city to begin clearing a large encampment, despite not having enough shelter space. In a separate lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Arizona, the court ordered in December that the city could not enforce its camping bans, and restricted what police could do with homeless people’s property during raids. The dueling lawsuits have left police uncertain of their role in dealing with crime, enforcing the cleanup, and offering services as excessive heat persists. Phoenix police officials say they feel like they’re being “pulled in two directions,” The Arizona Republic reports.

Geoff Hing Twitter Email is a data reporter for The Marshall Project. He has worked as part of investigative, data and news applications teams in a number of newsrooms. At The Arizona Republic, Geoff covered demographic change in the state and contributed data reporting to enterprise projects on water use and prison labor. At APM Reports, he covered voting rights and analyzed police use-of-force data and records as part of a team investigating the efficacy of Tasers. And while at The Chicago Tribune, Geoff helped analyze and visualize police accountability and shooting data.