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CityFixer

How Phoenix Helped Its Working Poor Beat the Summer Heat

The city organized a massive outreach campaign when it learned that low-income communities didn’t know about its free cooling stations.

Danny McFadden, of Phoenix, a driver for AZ Iceman, loads up a pallet of bagged ice as temperatures were predicted to hit 115 during a heat wave in July 2007.
Danny McFadden, of Phoenix, a driver for AZ Iceman, loads up a pallet of bagged ice as temperatures were predicted to hit 115 during a heat wave in July 2007. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

While Phoenix’s warm, sunny weather is one of the reasons people move to the city in droves (more than 1,000 new residents relocate there per week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), summer temperatures can hit 105 degrees and higher. At this level of heat, the body can no longer cool itself, potentially resulting in heat exhaustion or even heat stroke, which damages the body’s tissues and organs and can be fatal. Between 2000 and 2015, over 1,500 people died from exposure to Arizona’s excessive heat, and many thousands more experienced lost wages and health care outlays due to heat-related illness.

The city, through its Heat Relief Network, secures around 30 air-conditioned spaces, such as churches, senior centers, and libraries, where people can cool off. It also facilitates water donation points and wellness checks for the elderly or disabled. But those resources are only really valuable if people make use of them.

So when Olivia Hutchins and Nick Roosevelt arrived in Phoenix in January 2016 for their year with Cities of Service—a nonprofit supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies that partners with the federal government to embed volunteers from its poverty-fighting AmeriCorps/VISTA program in 10 U.S. cities—they wanted to determine how many people were using these resources, and figure out how to spread the word.

Volunteers handed out 1,000 maps showing Phoenix’s cooling and hydration stations in July 2016. (Courtesy of Resilient PHX)

Hutchins and Roosevelt canvassed low-income neighborhoods, and found that while homeless individuals were generally plugged in, few low-income families knew about them. “It was a great discovery,” says Michael Hammett, Phoenix’s Chief Service Officer.

The volunteers worked with Mayor Greg Stanton, Hammett, and City Hall departments such as human services and emergency management, along with Phoenix’s public transit department, to come up with an outreach plan dubbed “We’re Cool.” Says Hammett: “We targeted low-income public transit users to prevent heat-related illness that would result in the loss of work and wages, health care costs, and a negative impact on families.”

For three days in July, volunteers handed out 1,000 maps at light rail stations across the city that signposted Phoenix’s hydration and cooling stations. City Hall also worked with transit officials to place 30 posters in key light rail stations, and another 500 posters in city buses. The signage stayed up for three months.

The posters, which asked the simple question, “Need to Escape the Heat?”, displayed the city’s new, easy-to-remember URL for heat relief, which includes information on cooling and hydration stations: www.phoenix.gov/heat. Hutchins and Roosevelt had also found that though Phoenix’s low-income communities tend to have internet access, they were finding it difficult to locate the original, more complicated URL—spurring City Hall to change it.

“We thought public transportation was a great way to reach these communities, as many working families use it for their commute,” Hammett says. “And we had response on site. A woman carrying her young daughter told a volunteer that she hadn’t been aware of the cooling and hydration stations, and how much help they’d be.”

Boy Scout Kaden Heywood, a volunteer with “We’re Cool,” talks to a Phoenix resident about cooling stations. (Courtesy of Resilient PHX)

In late July and in the two months that followed, the city surveyed its cooling station hosts to see if the campaign had an impact. In each instance, the stations reported an increase in the number of visitors, from a small rise—say from an average of four to 10 visitors a day—to a larger influx of dozens more. “None of them said they didn’t see any change,” says Hammett.  

The city is aiming to do even more this year. The 2017 campaign will take place a little earlier, in June, and volunteers will hand out 500 to 1,000 more maps than last year. Public libraries and transit police will also distribute the guides. Posters will again appear at light rail stations and in buses.

Hammett believes that the collaborative effort of the Cities of Service volunteers, Phoenix’s administration, and the public transit entities made the 2016 initiative a success—one that will likely be replicated this year. “There was such an outpouring of support,” he says.

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