Tropical Storm Hilary and Maui Fires Show Climate Change is Worsening Homelessness

4 minute read

More than 170,000 people in California are unhoused. Even as the state has poured resources into combating the problem, the number of people without homes has ticked upward in recent years. On the surface the state has one key advantage for people who without a reliable roof over their heads: relatively consistent and livable weather. So one of my first thoughts when I heard news of a hurricane barrelling toward Los Angeles last week was just “what will happen to the city’s homeless population?”

City agencies quickly took action. As it became clear the Los Angeles region could experience an extreme downpour and subsequent flooding, outreach teams fanned out across the river bank and dam areas across the city that have become home to a significant unhoused population offering support to move them into shelters and motels. Still, many others learned about the impending storm from friends and neighbors—covering their belongings with tarps distributed by mutual aid groups.   

It’s almost a truism that the effects of climate change will hit the most vulnerable hardest. We see this globally as extreme weather events hit countries in the Global South that have contributed the least to the problem. In the U.S., communities of color are often more vulnerable than their predominantly white counterparts. With Tropical Storm Hilary on my mind, I want to take a moment to reflect on the link between climate change and this country’s housing crisis.

The most obvious connection is the threat extreme weather poses to unhoused people. While the reasoning is fairly simple—homes provide shelter from the elements—I think it’s worth acknowledging some of the data here. In 2020 and 2021, for example, more than 300 homeless people died of heat-related deaths in Arizona’s Maricopa County. While no deaths in California have been reported from Tropical Storm Hilary, many unhoused people in L.A. lost their possessions and makeshift shelters. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that extreme climate events can lead homeless individuals to suffer PTSD and other mental health conditions.

All of this is multiplied as climate change drives increasingly unpredictable weather. People without homes know how to respond to expected seasonal events. For example, they move indoors to shelters or even just train stations when it begins to snow in New York City. But events like a near-hurricane in Los Angeles or a wildfire in Maui can catch populations with limited access to information off guard.

Another link worth considering is the way in which climate change creates more homelessness and further stresses strained housing systems. Hurricane Katrina, for example, displaced 800,000 people. Of course, many rebuilt or relocated—but not everyone. Four years after the storm, 12,000 people remained without shelter, according to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. A recent survey found that 2% of California’s homeless population said they lost their shelter following a wildfire or natural disaster.

Housing has been—and will continue to be—a key issue in Maui too as it recovers from this month’s wildfire that killed more than 100 people and left hundreds more missing. Maui already has a housing crisis, the result of a high cost of living driven in large part by the tourism industry. And, now, many more are left looking for places to stay. Ashley Kelly, the chief operating officer at Hawaii’s Family Life Center, which connects people to social support services, told my colleague that the center has received an uptick in calls. But the circumstances are tough, she said: “Finding housing for any new clients is just not possible right now.”

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