Anisha Azad

Project title: The Effects of Extreme Weather Exposure on People Experiencing Homelessness in Seattle 

Degree: MS (Thesis) | Program: Environmental Health (EH) | Project type: Thesis/Dissertation
Completed in: 2023 | Faculty advisor: Edmund Y. W. Seto


King County, Washington currently ranks 3rd in the nation for the number of people experiencing homelessness. Amid an affordability housing crisis, the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to grow in Seattle. People in historically redlined communities of Seattle disproportionately experience homelessness because of gentrification. Resources for people experiencing homelessness, concentrated in densely populated Seattle neighborhoods, support the community’s resiliency towards inclement weather. Locally, the effects of climate change have induced an increasing amount of extreme heat, unhealthy air quality, and freezing temperature days in the past decade. Permanent congregate and emergency shelters serve as lines of defense against both mild and severe weather events. Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, service providers have had to adapt to mitigate the impacts of a public health crisis on homeless shelters. Underrepresented and underreported, Seattle’s homeless population faces increasing health risks associated with climate exposure and infectious disease. Operators of homeless shelters also experience additive stress from environmental factors. Labor shortages, occurring during inclement weather, result in inadequate shelter availability. People are left out on the street, facing unhealthy exposure to the elements. The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the respective living and working dynamics of shelter operators and people experiencing homelessness (PEH), focusing on moments of environmental stress. Operators and PEH were interviewed to understand the compounding health disparities associated with living unsheltered in order to offer insight into the disproportionate effects of climate change on Seattle’s most underserved communities. The major findings of the study were the gaps in resources that the shelter systems endure, and the policy and operational structure that make homelessness services and programs efficacious. Attaining permanent and temporary housing solutions is dependent on an organization’s capacity to fulfill non-emergency needs for its clientele.