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Phoenix's heat relief teams take hands on approach to addressing heat and homelessness

As of this week, there have been 17 confirmed heat-related deaths this week and 126 more under investigation, which is more than this point last year.

PHOENIX — It's just before 7 a.m. and a crew with bright colored shirts are loading up a wagon at Cortez Park near 35th and Dunlap avenues filled with hats, sunscreen, maps and cold ice water. 

Their goal: get these supplies to as many people as they can.

It's no surprise July brings high temps to the Valley, but the heat is also leading to a rise in concern. The latest data from the Maricopa County Department of Health shows the area is on track to set a new record for heat-related deaths.

RELATED: As temperatures rise, so do heat safety concerns for Phoenix's growing homeless population

As of this week, there have been 17 confirmed heat-related deaths this week and 126 more under investigation, which is more than this point last year.

And it's a problem the city is trying to tackle with a hands-on approach.

The crew with the early start time is one of Phoenix's heat relief teams, made up of city staff and volunteers. They do two shifts per day about three days a week, one in the morning and one in the afternoon when it’s hottest.

"I’ve been out here when it’s 115-116 degrees," said Maria Morales, a repeat volunteer from APS. "It's just so important, right? To help people that need the help."

Their work extends beyond parks, like going to trailheads on the weekend to talk with hikers. But it’s the homeless population that’s most vulnerable to heat injury and illness.

Most people they’re meeting at Cortez Park are unsheltered and unaware that there’s a cooling station right down the road at Cholla Library.

"I’ve seen folks new to homelessness - particularly seniors," said David Hondula, who helms the city's new Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

Hondula, who was out with the morning crew at Cortez Park, said a lot of his efforts have been focused on outreach. He said some people, especially those new to homelessness, aren't aware of what resources are currently out there. 

That's where the boots-on-the-grounds approach comes into play.

He said that the water and other supplies they hand out can be the first step to other types of assistance. The heat relief crews typically include someone from PHX C.A.R.E.S. who can help connect people to housing or treatment resources.

"Those kinds of solutions and being able to help in that way can make a difference over the long term," Hondula said. "Getting someone a cold bottle of water is great at the moment and could be a lifesaver, but the real solution to heat and homelessness is housing."

The city is offering free rides to cooling stations, thanks to a grant from APS. The new service is available to anyone and residents can get a free ride to a cooling station by calling 211.

To see how you can volunteer for a heat relief team, click here.

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