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Heat-Related Illness a Danger for Homeless

DeGraneWest-Side-Chicago-min-min High blood pressure can be exacerbated by hot weather. Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

While winter weather poses dangers for individuals experiencing homelessness, living on the streets during the summer can create its own set of challenges.

Staff members with The Night Ministry's Health Outreach Bus and Street Medicine programs educate their clients about potential heat-related health conditions such as heat exhaustion and stroke, which can occur during prolonged exposure to hot temperatures, as well as tips for avoiding heat illnesses and a list of cooling centers.

But Stephan Koruba, The Night Ministry's Senior Nurse Practitioner, said there's one heat injury he sees frequently that patients don't always know they are experiencing—dehydration.

"You can lose liters of fluid every day out there. You can be in the shade all day and still get dehydrated. Even on cooler days in the summer when you are not aware of how water is evaporating off your skin, you are still losing fluids," he said.

Like heat exhaustion and stroke, dehydration can lead to muscle cramps, nausea, and disorientation, among other issues. "Dizziness out on the streets can lead to passing out, falls and accidents. It decreases your level of awareness, which you need to maintain your safety," Koruba said.

Treating dehydration involves consumption of fluids and foods that contain sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes, which Koruba said can be a challenge when food resources and variety are scarce.

"If you don't have good control over your diet and you're not able to pick and choose what you're eating and drinking, then it can be tough to recover," he said.

Conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension are common among homeless populations. Bethany Hess, Nurse Practitioner at The Night Ministry, says hot weather can make them worse.

"These conditions become more intense and harder to control. Homelessness is stressful enough and then you add the stress of the weather on top of it," she said.

Koruba, who travels around the city providing health care as part of The Night Ministry's Street Medicine Team, said most of the clients he encounters want the water the team hands out from their van during the summer. And, if a patient needs immediate relief, they can spend some time cooling off in the van. 

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