Like most Portlanders, Rory Lidster has spent the last week trying to escape the heat.
But after living on the streets for the past eight years, his options are much more limited than most. He doesn’t have the luxury of retreating into an air-conditioned home. Many coffee shops likely wouldn’t look kindly on the heavy bags of cans he carries with him. The past few days of unrelenting heat have been, in a word, brutal.
“It gets to a point where you feel like you’re gonna pass out,” Lidster said. “And I know when I start to feel like that little lightheaded, dizzy, I know it’s time. I’ve got to stop.”
The occupants of Portland’s Charles Jordan Community Center on a blistering hot Tuesday afternoon offered a reminder of who will be hardest hit by the climate disasters that have become almost routine in the Pacific Northwest: the poorest residents.
Lidster and his partner Amanda were among the first to arrive at the North Portland cooling center, one of four air-conditioned overnight shelters set up by Multnomah County to provide people some relief from the week-long heatwave. They’d previously been camping under the canopy of a small cherry orchard nearby.
It was doable in the shade, Lidster said, except sometimes, while he fell asleep, the shade turned to sun and he’d wake up drenched in sweat. After feeling heat exhaustion creeping up on him on Monday, the first day temperatures hit the high 90s during this heat wave, he decided to head to a cooling center.
June Sanders, another early arrival at Charles Jordan, had a similarly rough time. Her service animal was panting frantically to the point she thought he might be on the verge of a heart attack. With the cooling shelters not yet open, she headed to the library Monday.
Sanders hoped to buy air conditioning this year in preparation for another sweltering summer. But when her roof started leaking, the money had to go elsewhere.
She planned to spend the rest of the week at the cooling center.
“This is really it,” she said. “Unless you’ve got big bucks to pay for a motel room.”
Even so, not everyone who needs to cool down makes it there. On Thursday afternoon, the Multnomah County examiner said they were investigating three deaths they believe may be heat-related. (The Oregon medical examiner reported one other apparent heat-related death in Umatilla County.)
Getting word out
In Portland, one of the primary challenges has been educating people that the centers exist. They sprang up for the first time last year during the heat dome, where several days of record-shattering temperatures killed dozens of people.
Multnomah County Emergency Manager Jenny Carver started her job that week. She remembers a man wandering in with a pet and collapsing almost immediately. A nurse was on hand and able to revive him with electrolyte packets and cooling towels.
“It just really solidified for me the need for these spaces and the need to get the word out so much earlier,” she said.
Homeless service providers are helping spread the word. At Blanchet House, a nonprofit in downtown Portland, staff have been handing out slips of paper with cooling center information to guests who line up for dinner. Some guests brush it off, saying they’re not interested in sleeping so close to other people. Others say this week’s heatwave doesn’t feel nearly as severe as when the weather turns frigid in the winter.
But for Jesse Bo Humphreys, the situation feels increasingly dire.
It’s been a difficult year for him and his two sons, 13-year-old Avery and 11-year-old Braden. Humphreys says he has struggled with addiction and recently lost his housing. For the past few weeks, his family of three has been stuck in a sweltering tent a few blocks away from Blanchet House in the heart of downtown.
“It feels like I’m sweating my body away,” said Humphreys. “I feel like I’m sweating so much, I’m losing weight.”
Tonight, at least, will be different. They decide they’ll ditch the tent and head to a cooling center.