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As mercury climbs, Springfield’s homeless experience dire health complications

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Springfield-Greene County Park Board
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The Jordan Valley Park fountain is a way many in downtown Springfield can cool off during hot weather.

At the Veterans Coming Home Center in Springfield, a homeless drop-in site, dozens of unsheltered and homeless residents have gathered inside a large, cool room seeking mercy from the blistering heat.

Freida Finnell has been homeless for about eight years. She says she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which makes it difficult for her to breathe. And the heat, she says, makes her condition much worse.

“Sometimes I pass out," she said. "Sometimes I have to sit and find the shade. I can’t do nothing else. I’m paralyzed, basically. I can’t move. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t do anything.” 

Earlier this week, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department reported the highest rate of heat-related illness in Greene County since 2018. Heat-related illnesses tend to disproportionately affect lower-income residents, many of whom live without air conditioning.

Gloria Shelburn says she’s had multiple episodes of heatstroke over the years. Given this week’s soaring temperatures, she worries she might have another one any day now.

“All the time," she said. "All the time I have to worry about that. And I know what the symptoms are now, after going through so many of them. I know if I start to feel that way, I instantly try to get in the shade and get a bottle of water and throw it on myself, to cool off quickly.” 

Despite scorching heat, cooling stations not scheduled to open

In past years, the City of Springfield has opened cooling stations when a heat advisory is issued. However, because the National Weather Service had not issued a heat advisory for Greene County as of Tuesday morning, the cooling stations remained closed.

The temperature is projected to reach a peak at or above 100 degrees every day for the remainder of this week.

The Springfield-Greene County Park board declined to comment on the opening of the cooling stations.

Nathan Rodriguez, who has been homeless in Springfield for a year, says he tries to stay out of the sun and limit his movement when it gets this hot.

“If the VA is open, the Veterans Coming Home Center, I’ll go there. If not there, maybe the library. If I can’t access those type of buildings, I’ll go to the park, [or] try to find a tree, or go to a creek," Rodriguez said.

For those seeking shelter from the heat, a map of cooling centers in Missouri can be found here.

Last fall, a group of 200 leading medical and health journals published an editorial in which authors said the rising temperatures of climate change are the “greatest threat to global public health.”

Josh Conaway is a graduate of Missouri State University with a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs. He works as a news reporter and announcer at KSMU. His favorite part of the job is exploring the rich diversity of the Ozarks and meeting people with interesting stories to share. He has a passion for history and running.