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As extreme heat continues, NY outreach teams worry for people struggling with addiction

Street outreach volunteer Anest Isufaj stands outside a needle exchange site in Ithaca during the heat wave to provide resources to people struggling with addiction and mental illness.
Aurora Berry
/
WSKG News
Street outreach volunteer Anest Isufaj stands outside a needle exchange site in Ithaca during the heat wave to provide resources to people struggling with addiction and mental illness.

Days into this week’s heat wave, street outreach volunteer Anest Isufaj was worried. He’d spent the 90-degree afternoon on Tuesday going to places in Ithaca where he knew people who use drugs usually hang out, looking to provide support — and keeping a watchful eye out for any heat-related emergencies.

“This is when things go sideways,” said Isufaj, standing outside the Ithaca office of the Southern Tier AIDS Program, which offers a needle exchange. "Especially for individuals that have mental health issues and substance abuse issues, they tend to be highly dehydrated to begin with. But on days like today, that dehydration could have a health hazard effect."

As the heat wave continues across New York, outreach workers say there is growing concern for the health of people struggling with addiction and mental illness, as well as those who are homeless. That’s because extreme heat can be particularly dangerous for those groups.

Many drugs can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature, which can lead to dehydration and heat stroke. Researchers have found that extreme heat is linked with an increased risk of drug overdoses, and can also exacerbate mental illness.

That’s why Isufaj has been outside in the heat all week, guided by one goal: to help people stay safe amid scorching temperatures.

“The most important part is just to be there to see the individual struggling,” said Isufaj, who volunteers with the group Alliance of Families for Justice, which supports local families who have experience with the criminal justice system. “Because most of the time, people think they're sleeping and they just pass right by. [They] don't realize that they might have some medical health issues.”

The Southern Tier AIDS Program office in Ithaca offers a needle exchange. It's one of the places outreach volunteers go to offer support to people struggling with addiction during the heat wave.
The Southern Tier AIDS Program office in Ithaca offers a needle exchange. It's one of the places outreach volunteers go to offer support to people struggling with addiction during the heat wave. (Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News)

Several other local organizations have increased outreach to vulnerable groups during the heat wave as well, providing support for homeless people and individuals spending their days outside.

Anna Vergari with The REACH Project, an Ithaca-area nonprofit that offers health care to homeless people, said her team has increased outreach to those living on the street. In Cortland, Amanda Howlett, who coordinates outreach to encampments for the Catholic Charities of Cortland County, said her team provided cooling resources and opened their offices as a temporary cooling center.

Still, risk remains for those living outside or struggling with addiction during the heat wave.

Standing down the block from Isufaj on Tuesday afternoon, Ashley Rice handed out water bottles. For her, the volunteer work is personal. She recently went through recovery. When things get hot, she’s seen people struggle, get sick and tragically die.

“The thing is, they don't stay hydrated,” Rice said. “I've lost two people this week, just due to dehydration and overdose.”

She plans to spend her days outside, providing help until the heat breaks.

A spokesperson for Tompkins County Whole Health said the health department was unable to immediately provide information on the rate of drug-related deaths and hospitalizations during the heat wave.