This summer, temperatures in Fairfax County have been hovering in the mid nineties, but when you factor in humidity and heat index weather experts say it can easily feel like triple digits. And the National Weather Service says today could be even hotter, with highs near 100 and heat index values as high as 106 degrees.
In response to rising temperatures, shelters and non-profits are taking extra precautions to help the estimated 1,544 homeless individuals in the county for whom the heat could be potentially dangerous.
Extremely high temperatures can increase the likelihood of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death. Last year, 138 people died in the United States as a result of extreme heat, according to the National Weather Service.
Though Fairfax County officials say fatalities because of excessive heat have yet to be reported this summer, Mount Vernon area charities are not taking any chances.
For the last 14 years, Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks number 758, a lodge along Richmond Highway that is part of a national charitable group, has been offering lunch five days a week to about 25 people who walk into the lodge between noon and one o’clock.
In blazing temperatures the hour-long respite is welcome relief for patrons like 50-year old Anthony Alexander.
Alexander said he usually crashes at a friend’s place during the day, venturing out in the evening or when necessary. Sometimes he buys a frozen blended drink and holds on to the cup, refilling it at area stores that will let him.
Unlike the winter months when he can bundle up Alexander says he is yet to get the hang of summer temperatures.
“I do not like the heat. During summer, I can only take off so many clothes without showing everyone my nice physique,” he said, hugging himself and cracking a wide grin.
Three blocks down Route 1, Pam Michell heads New Hope Housing, a group contracted by Fairfax County to run local homeless shelters.
Michell said that while residents are expected to be out of the establishment during the day either looking for work or volunteering, once the mercury hits 95 degrees Celsius that rule is relaxed and residents may remain indoors if they wish.
Neighboring jurisdictions like Washington D.C. have opened cooling centers but officials say Fairfax County is not in a position to do the same.
“One of the problems with Fairfax County is that we have such a large spread out community,” said Jeremy Lasich, from the county’s public affairs office. "We have about 395 square miles it is not compact. With many many downtown areas about 400 miles it is not very efficient for the county to open and staff cooling centers.”
Lasich said there are other options for Fairfax County residents looking to cool off from the stifling heat.
“What we do is encourage residents to go to places where there is air conditioning like malls, any of our community centers and senior centers, ” he said.
In extreme weather conditions shelters do not turn anybody away, including intoxicated individuals. Shelter managers even allow clients to flop on the floor when the eleven-bed overflow shelter is at maximum occupancy.
The group also has an outreach officer patrolling streets and bushes during summer months, looking for people who in seem in need of shelter or summer respite, which she says is just as important as shelter from inclement weather.
“I do not know why people think more about homelessness during the winter months,” Michell said. “I guess it is easier to think about it in terms of frost bite and hypothermia but summertime is dangerous too.”