Look around Fresno on any day when it’s triple-digit heat, and you’ll see people crouching in the shade of trees, bushes, and buildings as the sun beats down on the mostly concrete-looking city.
For hundreds of vulnerable people in the city, the shadow offers a sanctuary from the blazing, unrelenting heat. Still, days of exposure to the heat can be harmful to Fresno’s estimated 1,700 unprotected people.
Heat can cause both immediate and long-term health complications, especially when people are exposed to a heat index of 90 degrees (or higher) for several days in a row — which is common in Fresno. The heat becomes even more dangerous if the temperatures do not cool down for very long at night.
When temperatures of 105 degrees are forecast, the City of Fresno will operate cooling centers at four community centers — Ted C. Wills, Frank H. Ball, Mosqueda, and Pinedale. On these days, Fresno Area Transportation (FAX) offers free bus rides along existing routes to designated centers, and pets are allowed inside.
However, barriers to entry and information make the cooling centers inaccessible to many who could benefit from them. As a result, many without shelter have nowhere to escape.
Daily highs in Fresno have not dropped below 90 degrees since July 4, according to the National Weather Service. By August 30th, there were 95 days above 90 degrees and 55 days above 100 degrees – but the temperatures have only reached the activation threshold of the cooling center 20 times.
That could change Thursday when the Fresno City Council is scheduled to consider changes to refrigeration center protocols.
Transportation issues make refrigeration centers difficult to reach for many
Fresnoland spoke to around two dozen homeless residents on three separate days when temperatures ranged from 102 to 105 degrees. Everyone who spoke to Fresnoland said the summer heat regularly causes them headaches, dizziness, dehydration, fatigue, or complications with other health conditions.
One woman, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution, said she pours water over her head on hot days, wears a wet rag around her neck and “wears clothes that are barely there”. She said the heat makes it difficult to sleep and she often feels sluggish.
“It’s too far to walk,” she said of visiting a cold center.
Although public transport to the cooling centers is free and pets are allowed inside, only service animals are allowed on FAX buses. She has two dogs.
In Roeding Park on June 10, about a dozen people, including a man who only gave the name of Uncle Blue, sat under trees and around park tables in the triple-digit heat without shelter. He said he experienced heat stroke about 13 years ago and has since become more conscious of staying cool during heat waves.
He said he was working part-time for a nearby fast-food restaurant in exchange for access to her bathroom and water. Sometimes, he said, he fills up a bucket of water from the canal and cools himself off with it.
He said the city’s refrigeration centers are often too far to walk from his accommodation. Roeding Park is about 2.2 miles and 3.4 miles from Ted. C Wills and Frank H. Ball.
“I used the heat centers, but not for cooling,” he said. “People don’t know how far it is. The closest way to get to the chilling center from (Roeding Park) is to cross the train tracks, but you risk getting a ticket.”
Confusion over when refrigeration centers are open
About a dozen people told Fresnoland that they couldn’t get to the refrigeration centers with their belongings and pets, or that they weren’t sure when the refrigeration centers would be open. Two others told Fresnoland that they were not aware that Fresno operates refrigeration centers.
This confusion comes in part because Fresno has 18 community centers that are open to the public five days a week from noon to 7 p.m. and are free regardless of the outside temperature. However, only four allow pets and have free transportation on days when temperatures of 105 degrees are expected.
“These (community centers) are available regardless of the temperature,” said Aaron Aguirre, director of the Fresno Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services Department. “I think that’s something that people might not know or be unaware of.”
“We welcome every single member of the community who needs to get out of the hot sun and sit down and rest and cool off,” he added, saying the city also has free public swimming pools available.
Another issue highlighted by homeless residents is that cooling centers only “activate” 24 hours in advance, and it’s not until next day’s weather forecast of 105 degrees is announced that the city of Fresno begins, mostly via social media to advertise the four locations of refrigeration centers.
The daily notification system can be hit-and-miss for those who don’t have reliable internet access or even access to phones that can alert them to the expected daily high temperature.
For example, Joann Belmontes and her uncle said they often don’t know what the temperature is, but when they feel hot, they stop by the Ted C. Wills Community Center, one of Fresno’s four cooling centers, to check it’s open, but they rarely see the refrigeration center sign.
Around 3 pm on July 26, Belmontes was sitting on the hot sidewalk under the shade of a palm tree next to the convenience store at the corner of Belmont and Van Ness Avenues, with her uncle in a wheelchair next to her. It was about 103 degrees.
“They say refrigeration centers will be open, but they’re never open,” she said, referring to leaflets she’d seen in the Tower District. “We only come by once a day when it’s hot, but it’s never open.”
She added that the lack of consistency makes it difficult, especially for those who don’t always have access to social media, where the chilling center’s activities are regularly announced.
Belmontes and her uncle, whom she takes care of, have been homeless for about seven years after she failed to pay the debts on the house she inherited from her mother. She has liver psoriasis, which makes the heat especially tough, she said.
Some say community centers offer a daily escape from the heat
Only four of the two dozen people who shared their Fresnoland experience said they used the cooling centers.
Michael Richardson, a homeless man who spent his time in the Tower District, said he uses the Ted C Wills Community Center every day it’s open, although he wishes more were available and that more effort has been made to enlighten people about the centers.
“Sometimes you can’t even breathe,” Richardson said of the heat.
The woman who shared the shade with him had a stroller for her dog, which she worries about when the temperatures rise.
Over in West Fresno, a man who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned it would jeopardize a housing opportunity he’s applying for, said he goes to the Frank H. Ball Community Center every day during the summer, whether it’s is a chill day or not. On the weekends when the center isn’t open, he sits in the shade he can find.
Refrigeration center protocols are set by the city — and are subject to change
According to the California Office of Emergency Services and the California Department of Public Health, there are no state requirements for cities to provide refrigeration centers.
“Cooling centers are something we’ve developed here in the city to allow our residents to escape the heat as Fresno gets hot,” said Aguirre of the PARCS division.
Aguirre said the agreement for FAX to provide free transportation to the four community centers was the result of a city decision made years ago. Fresnoland has made several requests to obtain the policy agreement. The Fresno Bee archives show the order has been in place since at least 2007 — after the 2006 heat wave contributed to the deaths of 26 people in Fresno.
He emphasized that community members can use any cooling center on hot days, even if the cooling centers are not open.
Between 77 and 81 people died from heat-related illnesses in Fresno between 2006 and 2021, according to California Department of Health and Human Services mortality records. While the 2006 heatwave was Fresno’s deadliest to date, heatwaves have become more frequent both locally and globally.
The number of days over 100 degrees increased by 64% from 2006 to 2021.
At Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting, council members Esmeralda Soria, Miguel Arias and Luis Chavez are scheduled to propose a change to the refrigeration center’s temperature threshold. The resolution calls for the opening of refrigeration centers when temperatures are expected to reach 100 degrees or hit 95 degrees for two or more consecutive days.
The resolution also calls for the city manager to identify additional potential sites for cool centers and for cool center operating hours to be extended to 9 p.m., as opposed to the current 7 p.m. closure.
The resolution cites increased heat waves and climate events as the reason for the proposed changes, which include changes to warming center protocols.
“People most affected by extreme weather changes are our most vulnerable communities, including but not limited to individuals and families affected by homelessness, non-English speakers, low-income families and those living in residential areas with live in the highest needs where there is a lack of shade-providing tree canopy,” the resolution reads.
The lower temperature threshold would dramatically increase the number of days that refrigeration centers would operate in Fresno.
Had that proposal been implemented earlier this year, Fresno’s refrigeration centers would have reached activation thresholds in 75 days so far this year, versus just 20.
The council is scheduled to vote on the resolution on Thursday.
Cassandra Garibay helped cover this story while attending the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 California Fellowship.