Ted C Wills Community Center is one of the four cooling centers in Fresno that is activated once temperatures are forecast to reach 100 degrees. Credit: Cassandra Garibay

What's at stake?

The city of Fresno will consider a resolution to lower the temperature threshold for cooling centers from 105 degrees to 100 degrees or two or more consecutive days over 95 degrees.

Look around Fresno on any given triple-digit heat day, you will see people crouched under the shade of trees, bushes and buildings, as the sun beats down on the largely concrete city.  

For hundreds of unsheltered people in the city, the shade offers some refuge from the blazing, relentless heat. Still, exposure to heat, for days on end, can be detrimental for the nearly 1,700 estimated unsheltered people in Fresno.

Heat can cause both immediate and long-term health complications, especially if people are exposed to a 90 degree heat index (or higher) for several days consecutively – which is often the case in Fresno. The heat becomes even more dangerous when temperatures do not cool down  for very long at night.

When temperatures are forecast to reach 105 degrees, the city of Fresno operates cooling centers in four community centers – located at Ted. C Wills Community Center, Frank H. Ball Community Center, the Mosqueda Center and the Pinedale Community Center. On those days, the Fresno Area Transportation (FAX) provides free bus rides, along existing routes, to the designated centers, and pets are allowed inside. 

“There’s time you can’t even breathe.”

Michael Richardson, an unhoused man said regarding the heat.

However, barriers to access and information make the cooling centers inaccessible to many who could benefit from them. Consequently, many who are unhoused have nowhere to escape. 

Daytime highs in Fresno have not dipped below 90 degrees since July 4, according to the National Weather Service. There have been 95 days over 90 degrees and 55 days over 100 degrees so far this year – but temperatures have only hit the cooling center activation threshold 20 times. 

Transportation challenges make cooling centers hard to reach for many

Fresnoland spoke to around two dozen unhoused residents on three different days when temperatures ranged from 102 to 105 degrees. All who spoke to Fresnoland said the summer heat regularly causes them headaches, dizziness, dehydration, exhaustion or complications with other health conditions.

One woman who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation said on hot days, she pours water over her head, keeps a wet rag around her neck and wears “clothes that are hardly there.” She said the heat makes it difficult to sleep, and she often feels sluggish. 

“It’s too far to walk,” she said about going to a cooling center.. 

Although public transportation to the cooling centers is free and pets are allowed inside, only service animals are allowed on FAX buses. She has two dogs. 

At Roeding Park on June 10, about a dozen or so unhoused people, including a man who only gave the name Uncle Blue, sat under trees and around park tables in the triple-digit heat. He said he had experienced a heat stroke about 13 years ago and has since then become more conscious of staying cool during heat waves. 

He said he does side work for a nearby fast food restaurant in exchange for access to their bathroom and water. At times, he said, he will fill up a bucket of water from the canal and use that to cool down. 

He said the city’s cooling centers are often too far to walk from where he stays. Roeding Park is about 2.2 miles and 3.4 miles away from Ted. C Wills and Frank H. Ball respectively. 

“I’ve used the warming centers, but not for cooling,” he said. “People don’t realize how far it is. The closest way to get to the cooling center from (Roeding Park) is to cross the train tracks, but you risk being ticketed.” 

Confusion around when cooling centers are open

About a dozen people told Fresnoland they could not get to the cooling centers with their belongings and pets or that they were unsure of when the cooling centers were open. Two others told Fresnoland that they did not know Fresno operated cooling centers.

This confusion comes, in part, because Fresno has 18 community centers which are open and free to the public five days a week, from noon to 7 p.m., no matter the temperature outside. However, only four allow pets and have free transportation on days when temperatures are expected to reach 105 degrees. 

“Those (community centers) are available regardless of the temperature for use,” said Aaron Aguirre, director of the Fresno Parks, After School and Recreation Services. “I think that’s something that folks may not know or may not be aware of.” 

“We’re welcome to each and every community member that needs to get out of the hot sun and come and sit down and rest and cool off,” he added, saying that the city has free public pools available as well. 

Another issue unhoused residents highlighted is that cooling centers are “activated” only 24 hours in advance, and it is only when the next day’s weather forecast of 105 degrees is announced that the city of Fresno begins to advertise, primarily via social media, the four cooling center locations. 

The day-to- day notification system can be difficult for those who do not have reliable internet access or even access to phones that can let them know what the daily high temperature is expected to be. 

For example, Joann Belmontes and her uncle said they often don’t know what the temperature is, but when they feel hot, they pass by Ted C. Wills Community Center, one of the four cooling centers in Fresno, to check if it is open, but they rarely ever see the cooling center sign. 

Around 3 p.m. on July 26, under the shade of a palm tree by the minimart on the corner of Belmont and Van Ness Avenues, Belmontes was sitting on the hot sidewalk, her uncle in a wheelchair next to her. It was around 103 degrees. 

“They say cooling centers are going to be open, but they’re never open,” she said, referencing fliers she saw around the Tower District. “We just go 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 cooling center activities are regularly announced. 

Belmontes and her uncle, whom she cares for, have been unhoused for about seven years after she could not pay the debts on the house she inherited from her mother. She has cirrhosis of the liver which makes the heat particularly hard, she said. 

Some say community centers offer daily escape from heat

Only four of the two dozen people who shared their experiences with Fresnoland said they use the cooling centers. 

Michael Richardson, an unhoused man who spent his time in the Tower District area, said he uses the Ted C Wills Center every day that it’s open although he wishes more were available, and that more effort went into educating people about the centers. 

“There’s time you can’t even breathe,” Richardson said of the heat.

The woman who was sharing the shade with him had a stroller for her dog, whom she said she worries about when the temperatures soar. 

Over in West Fresno, one man, who asked to remain anonymous for fear it would jeopardize a housing opportunity he is applying for, said he goes to Frank H Ball daily, in the summer, whether it is a cooling center day or not. On the weekends, when the center isn’t open, he sits under whatever shade he can find. 

Why do cooling centers only activate at 105? And will that change? 

There are no state requirements for cities to provide cooling centers, according to the California Office of Emergency Services and the California Department of Public Health. 

“Cooling centers are something that we’ve developed here in the city for our residents to get out of the heat as Fresno does get hot,” Aguirre said. 

Aguirre said the arrangement for FAX to provide free transportation to the four community centers resulted from a decision made by the city years ago. Fresnoland made multiple requests to obtain the policy agreement. Fresno Bee archives show that the arrangement has been in place since at least 2007 – after the 2006 heat wave killed 26 people in Fresno. 

He stressed that community members can use any community center on hot days, even if the cooling centers are not open. 

Between 77 and 81 people died as a result of heat in Fresno from 2006 to 2021, according to death record data from the California Department of Public Health. While the 2006 heat wave has been the most deadly one in Fresno to date, heatwaves have become more common, both locally and globally. 

There was a 64% increase in the number of days over 100 degrees from 2006 to 2021 in Fresno.

On Thursday, Fresno City Councilmembers Esmerlda Soria, Miguel Arias and Luis Chavez were slated to propose a change to the cooling center temperature threshold, however the resolution was tabled to another date while the city analyzes the cost of lowering the threshold.

The resolution calls for cooling centers to open when temperatures are forecasted to reach 100 degrees or are expected to be 95 degrees for two or more consecutive days. The resolution also asks that the city manager identify more potential cooling center locations and that the operating hours of cooling centers be extended to 9 p.m., as opposed to the current 7 p.m. closing. 

The resolution sites increasing heat waves and climate events as the reason for the proposed changes, which also include amendments to warming center protocols. 

“Individuals most impacted by extreme weather changes are our most vulnerable communities, including but not limited to, individuals and families experiencing homelessness, non-English speakers, families earning low incomes, and individuals residing in highest-needs neighborhoods with lack of tree shade canopies,” the resolution reads. 

The lower temperature threshold would drastically increase the number of days cooling centers would operate in Fresno. 

Had this proposal been put in place at the beginning of this year, Fresno’s cooling centers would have reached the activation thresholds 75 days so far this year, as opposed to only 20.  

How we reported this story:

This story is part of a series produced for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2022 California Fellowship. 

In order to tell this story, Fresnoland committed to hearing directly from those impacted by the heat when they have nowhere to escape to. We want to be sure that we are not reporting on the unhoused, that we are reporting for them – making their voices central. To do this, Fresnoland joined Project H2O, a project group associated with We Are Not Invisible, on several occasions to pass out waters and speak with unhoused residents in Fresno. 

Project H2O passes out water regularly in the summer via a network of volunteers and water donations. Fresnoland interviewed around two dozen unhoused people and passed out more than 150 waters with Project H2O over the course of about six hours on three separate occasions in June and July.

This series of stories is not over, as Fresnoland will continue to explore the vulnerabilities unhoused residents and renters without adequate air conditioning face when temperatures remain in the triple digits for days on end. 

The story is part of a series reported with support from USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 California Fellowship program, with engagement support from the center’s interim engagement editor, Monica Vaughan. 

This story has been updated to reflect that the city council will vote on a resolution to lower the cooling center thresholds at a later date.

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Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.

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