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Asylum-seekers living outdoors brace for Seattle-area heat wave

caption: Asylum seekers play with a soccer ball while awaiting a possible sweep of their new encampment location, in front of an empty Econo Lodge on Tuesday, June 4, 2024, in Kent.
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Asylum seekers play with a soccer ball while awaiting a possible sweep of their new encampment location, in front of an empty Econo Lodge on Tuesday, June 4, 2024, in Kent.

Temperatures in the Seattle area have reached the mid-80s and are expected to peak somewhere in the 90s in coming days. Through the heat wave, roughly 150 people — individuals and families seeking asylum — will be camping next to an empty hotel in Kent.

Those asylum-seekers and mutual aid groups that assist them are asking for donations of kiddie pools, bottled water, and large canopies to help them stay cool. They're also calling on city and county officials to step in with timely shelter assistance.

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one of the migrants camping near the former Econo Lodge — many of whom hail from countries in South and Central America and Africa — are strangers to the heat, said Jonathan Lutumba, an asylum-seeker from Angola. But without housing, fans, and air conditioning, finding ways to stay cool gets more complicated.

“The heat here, it appears to be more aggressive,” than it is in Angola, Lutumba said in a mix of Portuguese and Spanish.

Portable air conditioners and fans would be welcome except for one problem — they would require a generator and gas, stuff Lutumba said asylum-seekers living outside don’t have capacity or money to maintain. But for some asylum-seekers, groups like the Low Income Housing Institute have helped them find stable housing in tiny home villages — and have installed air conditioning and misting systems to help residents stay cool.

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At the camp in Kent, keeping people fed and healthy through the heat wave is the priority, Lutumba said.

For the past few months, pediatrician Dr. Suzinne Pak-Gorstein has been offering free health care to asylum-seekers and their children. She said anyone who’s experiencing housing and food instability — especially people facing homelessness for more than a year — is more likely to have a medical condition.

“The extreme heat from the climate crisis will exacerbate those issues,” she said.

Pak-Gorstein added that asylum-seekers face even more risk of heat stress — beyond living outdoors — because many don’t understand how health care systems work here.

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She said she’s especially worried about kids, who are more active and have higher metabolisms than adults. To curb the impacts of hot weather, she recommends knowing the symptoms of an impending heat stroke, which tend to occur in stages:

  • Cramps, irritability, thirst, and headaches
  • Nausea, weakness, and dizziness
  • Vomiting, high fever, and confusion

“Most of these symptoms are caused by dehydration because they're sweating so much,” Pak-Gorstein said. "And the problem is that a lot of those folks could then go from having heat exhaustion to heat stroke, which is the most serious level of concern.”

She said kids experiencing a heat stroke might not be sweating anymore. One way to keep track of how hydrated they are is to check their urine: the darker their urine, the more dehydrated they are.

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But there’s one strategy for staying safe from the heat that beats all the others, Pak-Gorstein said.

“The bottom line is, these folks need to get shelter. That is the solution,” she said.

In Kent, asylum-seekers and advocates have called on the city and King County to open the former Econo Lodge to house the people living next to it. Their calls echo the ones made amid last winter's cold snap, during which a church and nonprofits funded hotel stays for migrants living outside in Tukwila.

RELATED: Tukwila asylum-seekers take refuge in hotels as permanent shelter, warmer weather evades them

Last week, city leadership said at a Kent City Council meeting that they would process a permit request to open it if they received one from the county. King County spokesperson Amy Enbysk said by email that county officials are considering obtaining a permit to reopen the hotel, "but the county never planned to keep this building in our portfolio and has been in conversations about selling our lease on that site."

Enbysk added, "We are focused on quickly getting the most vulnerable asylees on this site into emergency housing and shelter. We are working with providers to conduct outreach and offer emergency housing options for the people at the site as quickly as possible."

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In the meantime, the county has provided portable toilets, hand-washing stations, drinking water, and a safety barrier at the camp in Kent, she said.

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