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COVID-19 makes it harder to stay cool on the streets

While many Jackson County residents have escaped the sweltering August heat inside their air-conditioned homes, those living without a permanent address lack the same luxury.

In past years, local organizations have dedicated spaces for unhoused residents to cool down, but fewer options now exist for homeless people to beat the heat due to COVID-19 safety restrictions.

“We’ve checked with many homeless service providers and none of them were able to open a cooling shelter,” said Constance Wilkerson, Jackson County Continuum of Care manager.

Wilkerson pointed to safety guidelines such as social distancing — necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19 — for keeping organizations from setting up cooling spaces for people to retreat from the hot weather.

Extreme heat can cause serious health problems such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion. On average, excessive heat causes more than 700 deaths every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC notes that cooling shelters are potential sites for further COVID-19 spread.

Matthew Vorderstrasse, Rogue Retreat development director, said COVID-19 considerations are a key reason the nonprofit has not been able to offer a cooling space for homeless people this summer.

The organization has been short on resources, said Vorderstrasse, with most staff focused on managing Rogue Retreat’s temporary urban campground off Biddle Road.

The Rogue Valley saw a bit of a reprieve Wednesday and Thursday from the record-breaking, 100-plus-degree temperatures recorded earlier this week, dropping back down to the mid-90s, according to the National Weather Service.

In 2018, Rogue Retreat partnered with the First Presbyterian Church, Medford First United Methodist Church and Set Free Christian Fellowship to provide cooling shelters in the Medford area.

Rogue Retreat, however, did not set up a cooling space last year because the nonprofit directed most of its resources and work toward the development of the Kelly Shelter, at 332 W. Sixth St., Vorderstrasse said.

There are some ways Jackson County residents can still help people living on the streets, said Vorderstrasse. He recommended people take extra bottles of water with them when they go out, in case they see a person out in the heat who may be in need of relief.

“Being able to stay hydrated is one of the biggest challenges,” said Vorderstrasse,

He also recommended people research resources such as shelters or food services available in the community for homeless people. That way, if they find someone out in the heat who looks like they need respite, they can refer them to that resource.

file photoKayla, left, Hezekia and Phoenix, who declined to give their last names, enjoy games and conversation Monday in Ashland’s emergency cooling shelter at the United Methodist Church.