Salem’s outreach teams provide life-saving cooling supplies to unsheltered neighbors 

In 103-degree heat Wednesday afternoon, a woman in a tank top and blue skirt sat with her head curled down on a small towel on the sidewalk outside the Walmart in northeast Salem. 

Unsure whether the woman was breathing, Maggy Johnston walked towards her with a cold rag and Gatorade. Johnson sat next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. 

The woman tilted her eyes up as Johnston wrapped her neck in an ice-cold rag. She raised her head and a bright smile formed across her face. Johnston sat, rubbing her back as she drank the Gatorade making sure she was able to talk. As she got up the woman looked Johnston in the eye and, with a soft smile, said, “Thank you.”

Johnston is one of three outreach coordinators for the the ARCHES Project. She and teammates Dominique Reyes have spent the last week providing life-saving services to those living outside as Salem endured a heat wave with triple-digit temperatures and little nighttime relief.

They both feel glad they can show up and deliver goods to people who need them most. 

“I can sleep at night knowing I did everything I could to help,” said Johnston. 

Extreme heat is the number-one weather-related cause of death in the U.S. and kills more people in most years than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined according to Scientific American. As the summers continue to trend hotter people living outside are some of the most vulnerable to heat-related medical emergencies.

During the 2021 heat dome, which broke local records, three unsheltered people died from suspected heat-related illnesses in Marion County.

The outreach teams run year-round, with two to three teams that cover all of Marion and Polk counties going out to camps, parking lots and the side of the road serving people living outside. But in extreme weather, they bring out more people to distribute cooling essentials like cold water, rags and sunscreen.

The teams have been operating for four years and typically run Monday through Friday, going to new locations around the counties every day. However, when the weather goes above 90 degrees they send teams out daily and try to stay in locations with high-density encampments.

Teams work 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in hot weather to keep people alive and hydrated. The agency pulls people from other divisions to fill the need so three outreach teams can be out in extreme heat. 

On Tuesday, Johnston and Reyes found four or five people unresponsive when they were doing their rounds and temperatures hit a high of 102 with hazardous air quality. Johnston said when this happens, outreach workers sit with them and try to get them to drink a full Gatorade until they are lucid and talking again. Only on a few occasions have they had to call emergency services.

Salem first responders reported only a slight increase in calls for heat-related illness, with about five calls over the past week, said Brian Carrera, deputy chief of administrative services for the Salem Fire Department. Three a week is more typical, he said.

On Wednesday, Salem Reporter tagged along with Reyes and Johnston for the afternoon in an ARCHES minivan loaded with four large coolers and rags. 

At 1:30 p.m. the pair started near the Holiday Inn parking lot on Northeast Market Street, where several trailers and cars were parked. They stopped the car in the middle of the lot and Johnston got out and yelled, “Cold water, get your cold water.” 

One woman quickly rushed out of her trailer with a big simile on her face and a cigarette in one hand. Johnston prepared a cold rag in one of the coolers and said to the woman, “Are you ready? You’re gonna love me.” 

The woman then lowered her head and let out a squeal as Johnston wrapped her neck and head with an ice-cold rag. 

Three more people left their cars and trailers to line up for the same refreshing treatment. 

The pair drove the car around the parking lot stopping at every person sitting on the curb or in their car.

One man upon initial offer of cold water said “No, I’m okay,” and Johnston instantly said, “No you’re not okay, come here take the water and rag you need it.” The man smiled and thanked her. 

Johnston said after doing this job for three years she has really gotten to know all the people they serve. Often, once people hear her Colombian accent they rush over. 

At the next parking lot, they knew they needed to check in on a mother and her adult son who they found in bad shape the day before.

The woman had been living in her car and said this week has been miserable in the heat. She was very grateful for the services the outreach team had to provide, but said “It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.” 

Johnston said that the woman had worked her career as a social worker, but once she retired Social Security payments weren’t enough to keep her housing. She said she has a housing voucher at the moment, but it feels useless because she can’t find anywhere affordable enough to use it. 

The next stop was the Walmart and McDonald’s parking lots off Northeast Lancaster Drive. Outside the slope of land leading from the sidewalk to the parking lot, there are large rock piles where grass used to be. Johnston said she was upset rocks were added because people still sit on them, but rocks get hotter and dangerous in the heat.

A large group was huddled under a few trees outside the McDonalds. As Reyes and Johnston pulled up the car, everyone already knew to line up. 

Outreach worker Maggy Johnston, left, places cold rag on a woman outside McDonald’s in northeast Salem Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 during a heat wave (Natalie Sharp/ Salem Reporter)

Reyes said that working this job for two years, they have been able to build a lot of trust with the people they serve and now a lot of those people will help protect them on the streets in return. 

As they drove from the location they slowed the car and rolled down the window to hand cold water to several people on bikes. 

They keep a smaller cooler in the front with a few water bottles to pass out as they drive, making sure not one person gets missed. 

One man with a jacket over his head was hunched over walking past Taco Bell and using a quarter to scratch off his lottery ticket. They pulled the car over and offered him the cooling supplies. His face lit up as the cold rag sent chills down his back. 

Over three hours, the outreach team gave supplies to about 70 people. The previous day they had served about 200 people in Salem. 

When all three teams are operating, they have the ability to serve 600 people a day, said Don Dobbs, the outreach project coordinator. 

He said when it gets above 100 degrees he is making calls to everyone in the agency trying to get staff to fill the three teams. 

Given the heavy emotional labor of this work, Johnston said she feels lucky to have a good family and support system to come home to. She said she’s glad they get to show up with goods and bring people joy. 

“We offer these services to everyone, no questions asked,” said Johnston. 

Reyes said that he deals with it fine for the most part unless there are kids involved. He has kids of his own and when he sees children in these situations it tears him up. 

They both agreed that this summer has felt easy compared to previous ones because it hasn’t gotten as consistently hot. 

Johnston was out in the 117-degree heat in 2021 giving out the same services and said it was really hard to see people living in that. 

During the winter, the team operates in the coldest hours of the day as needed if it gets snowy and below freezing. They pass out socks, hats and hot drinks throughout the coldest hours of the night. 

“We are the bottom of the barrel for services,” said Johnston. 

Contact reporter Natalie Sharp: [email protected] or 503-522-6493.

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Natalie Sharp is an Oregon State University student working as a reporter for Salem Reporter in summer 2023. She is part of the Snowden internship program at the University of Oregon's School of Communication and Journalism.