Dual Hazards of Homelessness and Climate Change

March 7, 2024 by Kayla Minton Kaufman

Smoke from Taylor Creek Fire in 2018, as seen from just outside of Grants Pass, Oregon. USFS/Darren Stebbins.

Climate change and the legal punishment of homelessness together create intersecting hazards. Homelessness, therefore, is a community issue and an environmental issue.

In April, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, a case confronting whether enforcing laws regulating camping on public property violates the Eighth Amendment, amounting to “cruel and unusual punishment” towards homeless individuals. People experiencing homelessness are some of the most vulnerable in our communities, and not only from the challenges that come with lacking shelter. They are also made more vulnerable by ordinances like those in Grants Pass,[1] prohibiting sleeping in public places, and those in Kentucky, such as the “Safer Kentucky Act,”[2] aiming to expand self-defense law to allow property owners to kill homeless individuals without consequence.[3] Punishments for being homeless place a vulnerable population even more at risk for violence based on their circumstances.

But people experiencing homelessness in Grants Pass, Oregon, are familiar with another vulnerability: wildfires. As recently as 2023, the city has experienced nearby fires spreading thousands of acres,[4] putting the community at risk of fire weather and evacuations at best, serious damage and lost lives at worst. In the face of the worst wildfires, entire towns and cities are destroyed in the course of days, making thousands suddenly homeless.[5] But this is not specific to Grants Pass, nor to wildfires; climate change not only will make homelessness more common, but also will make it more dangerous.

Legal punishment of homelessness, especially measures criminalizing it, and climate change, together, create intersecting hazards.[6] Homelessness therefore is a community issue and an environmental issue. And ending homelessness—including supporting stopgaps along the way, in contrast to Grants Pass-like ordinances—is key for environmental and climate justice.


Homelessness will become more common in the face of climate change

Climate change is one of the leading causes of global displacement,[7] only second to conflict and violence, depending on the year in question. Millions are displaced yearly as a result of disasters: 32.6 million displacements were associated with disasters in 2022, more than displacements associated with conflict and violence.[8] This includes 675,000 displacements within the United States alone.[9] One billion people could become climate refugees by 2050.[10]

Homelessness caused by disaster is cyclical. Disasters like wildfires and hurricanes cause the displacement of housed and unhoused people alike. In short-term events, like evacuations, stop-gap measures like temporary housing and camping may be sufficient to meet needs.[11] But when disasters damage or destroy housing, survivors may seek permanent solutions, like new housing, only to find such additional housing unavailable because it was also destroyed and other scarcity at play in the real estate market broadly.[12] This leads to increased difficulty in finding housing that is available and affordable.[13] Survivors who decide to rebuild housing may find that there is not enough time to do so before the next disaster.[14]

These effects are felt disproportionately across populations that are already vulnerable: neighborhoods including poor, racial and ethnic minority, elderly, and disabled populations will more often and more severely experience these disasters.[15] This is easily understood on class lines: people in lower socioeconomic positions will find it more difficult to evacuate, due to the costs involved in doing so, and wealthier people will have an easier time evacuating and rebuilding.[16]


Climate change will make being homeless more dangerous

All people facing homelessness, moreover, will experience compounding effects from climate change. As a starting point, disasters put homeless populations at serious risk. Wildfires, for example, like the 2018 Taylor Creek Fire near Grants Pass,[17] are especially harsh on homeless populations, who are less likely to receive public health alerts[18] and are more likely to find it difficult to mitigate effects of fire and smoke or evacuate when needed.[19]

Because homeless individuals spend long periods of time outside, air pollution also poses particular dangers. In the face of smoke and ash from wildfires, for example, homeless populations have little to no protective equipment, nor places to go with sufficient air filtration.[20] More generally, prolonged exposure to air pollution, wildfire-related or otherwise, leads to higher incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory mortality rates.[21] With climate change increasing the incidence of pandemics and the spread of disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks, this also leads to a higher likelihood of disease exposure and complications.[22]

Extreme weather exposure also makes homeless individuals more at risk of hypothermia, hyperthermia, and mortality, which is further aggravated by the fact that a higher proportion of homeless people live with chronic diseases.[23] While unsheltered populations are no strangers to exposure to heat and cold, severe extremes in either direction are serious threats. Extreme heat is especially a problem for homeless populations—up to 91% of homeless people in this country live in urban or suburban areas prone to the heat island effect, making heat waves more frequent and intense.[24] Many cities have chronicled tragic mass fatalities of their homeless populations as a direct result of such heat events.[25] Homeless people already lack regular access to clean water, which is further exacerbated by periods of drought and polluted water access.[26] Experiencing these severe weather events in the context of this severe exposure can result in PTSD and other mental health challenges.[27]

All of these risk factors are exacerbated by ordinances like those at issue in Grants Pass, which further displace already homeless people. More often than not, this will push them into more dangerous places that are more susceptible to environmental hazards, with less security and stability to withstand already precarious circumstances when now separated from their possessions and created communities.[28] As the realities of climate change become ever clearer, environmental justice compels us to also confront preexisting vulnerabilities that communities such as those experiencing homelessness experience, which will only be exacerbated as extreme weather becomes more intense and more common.


[1] Grants Pass Code Mun. §§ 5.61.020(A), 5.61.010(B), 5.61.030, 6.46.090, https://www.grantspassoregon.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38/Title-5–Nuisances-and-Offenses.

[2] H.B. 5, 2024 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Ky. 2024), https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/recorddocuments/bill/24RS/hb5/orig_bill.pdf.

[3] Id. at 16 (“(1) The use of physical force by a defendant upon another person is justifiable when the defendant believes that such force is immediately necessary to prevent: . . . (c) The commission of unlawful camping in violation of Section 17 of this Act, when the offense is occurring on property owned or leased by the defendant, the individual engaged in unlawful camping has been told to cease, and the individual committing the offense has used force or threatened to use force against the defendant.”).

[4] Abigail Landwehr, Oregon wildfire updates: Flat Fire grows to 12,756 acres, 224 Fire containment increases, Statesman Journal (Jul. 19, 2023), https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/local/oregon/2023/07/19/oregon-wildfire-updates-flat-fire-224-fire-haight-creek-fire/70432206007/.

[5] See 2020 Oregon Wildfire Spotlight, Oregon Department of Emergency Management (2020), https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6e1e42989d1b4beb809223d5430a3750.

[6] Erin Goodling, Intersecting Hazards, Intersectional Identities: A Baseline Critical Environmental Justice Analysis of Homelessness, Unequal Cities, https://unequalcities.org/2020/01/31/intersecting-hazards-intersectional-identities-a-baseline-critical-environmental-justice-analysis-of-homelessness/.

[7] 2023 Global Report on Internal Displacement, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2023), https://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2023/.

[8] Id.

[9] Country Profile: United States, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2023), https://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/united-states/.

[10] Maria Trimarchi & Sarah Gleim, 1 Billion People May Become Climate Refugees By 2050, HowStuffWorks, https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/climate-refugee.htm.

[11] Vincent Fung, Displacement and housing affordability in the United States, Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (Jul. 26, 2019), https://www.internal-displacement.org/expert-analysis/displacement-and-housing-affordability-in-the-united-states/.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] John Fialka, When Storms Hit Cities, Poor Areas Suffer Most, Scientific American (Apr. 1, 2019) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-storms-hit-cities-poor-areas-suffer-most/.

[16] Kate Frazer et al., Climate Change, Weather, Housing Precarity, and Homelessness: A Systematic Review of Reviews, 18 Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (May 28, 2021), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8199223/; Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin, SAMHSA (Jul. 2017), https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/srb-low-ses_2.pdf.

[17] Zach Urness, UPDATE: Wildfire growth in Southern Oregon spurs evacuations in Grants Pass, Wimer, Applegate Valley, Statesman Journal (Jul. 17, 2018), https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/2018/07/17/oregon-wildfires-southern-oregon-central-point-ashalnd-grants-pass/794616002/.

[18] Kate Bassil & Donald Cole, Effectiveness of Public Health Interventions in Reducing Morbidity and Mortality during Heat Episodes: a Structured Review, 7 Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (Mar. 10, 2010),  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2872323/.

[19] Unhoused people are especially vulnerable to wildfire smoke, Yale Climate Connections (Nov. 9, 2023), https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2023/11/unhoused-people-are-especially-vulnerable-to-wildfire-smoke/.

[20]See Environment, Homelessness, and Other Risk Factors, supra note 23.

[21] Brodie Ramin & Tomislav Svoboda, Health of the Homeless and Climate Change, 86 J. Urban Health (May 15, 2009),  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704276/.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] See Anna Scott, LA’s heat wave is deadly for the county’s unhoused population, KCRW (Sep. 16, 2020), https://www.kcrw.com/news/shows/greater-la/wildfires-air-quality-deaths/heat-wave-la-unhoused (deaths in California); Heat-Associated Deaths in Maricopa County, AZ, Maricopa County Public Health (2021), https://www.maricopa.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/5404 (deaths in Arizona).

[26] Environment, Homelessness, and Other Risk Factors, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, https://www.coloradocoalition.org/sites/default/files/2022-08/CCH%20-%20OSAH%20onepager%20environment.pdf.

[27] L. A. Goodman & M. Harvey, Homelessness as a psychological trauma: Broadening perspectives, 46 American Psychologist 1219-25 (1991), https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1992-08847-001.

[28] See Goodling, supra note 6.