Cooling Centers are Scarce Amid Nashville’s Summer Heat

The 120-year-old building on the corner of Meridian Street and East Trinity Lane has transformed into a nonprofit where everyone who enters through its doors is called “neighbor.” That includes the Piggly Wiggly employee who sleeps outside, to the woman who has been visiting the church for years and is now seeking assistance to apply for Section 8 housing, to the young adults who are practicing a dance for a Pride event. 

Trinity Community Commons, the nonprofit that acquired the building in 2022, set out to show residents radical hospitality, a concept defined as making people feel welcome with extraordinary effort.

Sometimes those efforts means the church building serves as a place for people to cool off during the summer months. Average summer temperatures increased in Nashville over the years, from 76.7°F in 1970 to 81.4°F in 2022 — marking the city’s sixth-hottest summer on record – followed by an extreme heat wave in 2023.

Despite that rise, cooling centers throughout the city are scarce for those without access to air conditioning — people who are often unhoused or live in rentals without it — and Tennessee law does not require landlords to provide air conditioning. 

Trinity Community Commons is more of the exception these days. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations say the centers aren’t cost-effective and have, therefore, taken other measures to bring cooling resources to unhoused residents. For those who are looking for a place to cool off, though, barriers can prevent a person from accessing one. 

“I honestly would say most people have accepted that they’re not going to find those cooling center resources. So for the most part, it’s about keeping them cool while outside,” said Claire Hennigan, street outreach and housing navigator at Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit that provides resources to people facing homelessness. 

Where are Nashville’s Cooling Centers?

In 2023, as part of Metro’s Understanding Heat campaign, local community partners collected narratives to understand the barriers residents face to keep cool on extreme heat days.

Out of 46 responses, one resident who didn’t have a car said they didn’t know where the nearest cooling center was, and a lack of unshaded sidewalks prevented them from visiting one. Another respondent wanted Metro to provide residents with information on how to access cooling centers, according to the Nashville Heat Perception Survey results the Banner examined. 

The Tennessee Department of Health’s Cooling and Warming Centers Map is the only illustration of cooling centers in Nashville. The map lives on the National Center for Healthy Housing’s موقع إلكتروني under a page for cooling centers by state.

It lists supermarkets and malls as places where “anybody can go to cool off or warm up during extreme heat or extreme cold.” Some stores listed are places like Aaron’s Garage Doors, a garage door company, the UPS Store and H.G. Hill Urban Market.

“I think this is just every business in Nashville, probably,” Hennigan said, adding that some of the places listed would kick someone out for wanting to cool down inside the establishment without purchasing an item. The Banner found that some of the phone numbers listed were disconnected, some businesses moved locations and others didn’t know what a cooling center was or were even aware of the map. 

Even though the state is credited for the map, Dean Flener, the Tennessee Department of Health’s director of communications and media, said he could not say why the map was created, when it was created or when it was last updated. 

“I’ll note this map is built on the ArcGis open-source mapping software platform, so it is not necessarily maintained or updated by TDH,” Flener wrote in an email. 

He added that the map could have been built by an ArcGis account holder who is no longer at the department, but it lives on a web server tied to the department with inputs coming from different sources and agencies.

Flener did not respond to the Banner’s question about whether residents should use the map to find cooling centers. 

“I think it’s maybe one of those things that we really want people to have access to a map like this — and this is super important and super valuable,” Hennigan said, adding that the map’s limitations can leave a resident who is looking for a center feeling embarrassed or dehumanized.

Why are Agencies Moving Away from Cooling Centers?

Two years ago, the Office of Homeless Services offered cooling shelters during the summer months but found that it wasn’t the best use of its funds, according to Demetris Chaney, the office’s public information coordinator.

“Few people utilized the resource,” Chaney wrote in an email, adding that the current approach of deploying heat patrols is more effective. During heat patrols, the agency provides water, bus passes, bug spray, sunscreen and encampment support to unhoused residents.

The Salvation Army Nashville, which operated a heat relief shelter in 2022, also provides heat patrols support to unhoused residents, according to Harold Witherspoon, the executive director of development.

One barrier Hennigan sees to visiting cooling centers is communication. 

“If people don’t know that this is accessible or how to access it, they aren’t going to seek out the instructions to get there because that’s extra energy that they’re spending on a very hot day,” she said. 

The Nashville Office of Emergency Management also provides heat patrols during the summer months. However, it will not activate cooling stations until the heat index reaches 110 degrees for a prolonged period or when it is notified that several people are experiencing heat-related illnesses, according to Joseph Pleasant, a spokesperson for the department. 

From 2010 to 2021, there were 3009 documented heat-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits in Davidson County, according to the Tennessee Department of HealthThe Banner is awaiting a response to a public records request to learn the total number of deaths related to heat illnesses. 

Pleasant did not answer the Banner’s question about why the office requires the heat index to reach 110 degrees to activate the stations but responded: “110 degrees is the heat index, not the actual air temperature. The heat index factors in humidity. Once again, it does not need to be 110 degrees outside,” he wrote in an email. 

He added that whenever the department activates its cooling stations, he sends multiple updates via multiple sources. 

Another barrier to why fewer people visit cooling centers is the fear of leaving their belongings behind. Unhoused residents might wonder how many things they can take with them to a cooling shelter, Hennigan said. 

Where Are the Third Spaces That Serve as Cooling Centers?

Trinity Community Commons lacks the capacity to operate as a cooling center every day of the week during the summer months. When Zach Lykins, the nonprofit’s only employee, joined as the executive director in 2023, he spotted people walking down Dickerson Pike and Trinity Lane experiencing heat-related illnesses.

He kept the church’s doors open every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but found it unsustainable. A lack of funding prevented him from hiring additional staff, he said. Now, the lawn is always open, and water is provided for those who need a place to cool down, Lykins said. 

Cooling centers’ services are too remote and few options available, he added. 

“It concentrates a lot of people who are really vulnerable into one place,” he said, adding that the city needs more buildings that are not solely for single purposes but provide a range of low-barrier, accessible resources for people. 

One example is libraries — which often serve as cooling centers. 

Davidson County, which is made up of 35 Council districts, has 21 libraries, and some neighborhoods don’t have a library branch

“I would say libraries are the biggest cooling shelter type place for unhoused folks in Nashville right now,” Hennigan said, adding that residents who don’t have air conditioning in their homes are more likely to seek out fans or air conditioning units. 

Not owning a vehicle could create challenges for some residents to access these locations, as 6 percent of households do not have access to one, according to a 2020 Metro Nashville Transportation Plan. 

“Our transportation system is not good enough to get people where they need to go,” Lykins said. “So when people are coming here, they’re generally walking here, and they generally know it because they know someone in the neighborhood or they know it within walking distance, but they’re not going to be looking online for where’s a place across town I can get to.”

نشرت من قبل ناشفيل بانر on June 3, 2024.


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