A homeless man identified as "Cuba" (right, under shade) is shown in an undated photo from the Brown Bag Coalition. Numerous homeless individuals in Calexico confirmed to Brown Bag's Maribel Padilla that this was a man who died from the extreme heat on Friday, July 9. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIBEL PADILLA
(This is an updated version of a story originally published on Saturday, July 10.)
CALEXICO — Two deaths of homeless men found unresponsive in downtown Calexico on Friday, July 9, could have been a result of the extreme temperatures that wracked the region over the weekend, but only one was being talked about as heat-related with any certainty.
A man in his 50s was already dead when first responders arrived to the parking lot outside Valley Orthopedic Clinic on East First Street, a known area around where many of the homeless stay.
A few hours later, in the 200 block of Paulin Avenue, another man thought to be in his mid- to late 30s or early 40s was found unresponsive and was transported to El Centro Regional Medical Center, where he later died.
In the case of the man who died in El Centro Regional, a fire captain who responded to the scene said on Saturday, July 10, that the unidentified man showed signs of severe heat exhaustion and a sheriff’s official added, “he had a very high internal temperature.”
Although a determination of the cause of death is pending autopsy and toxicology, Chief Deputy Sheriff Robert Benavidez said it is likely that man, who as of Tuesday, July 13, was listed as a John Doe, did succumb to the heat.
With the death reported earlier in the day Friday, Benavidez said toxicology results would most certainly be required due to the reported history of that man’s drug and alcohol abuse, adding he didn’t want to speculate whether that was a heat death.
Coroner’s officials do have the name and date of birth of the man found dead by police and fire officials just after 1 p.m. Friday, but next of kin have not been notified. Benavidez said he is believed to be a Mexican national and the consulate has been contacted to help find his family.
Investigators do not have an identity for the man who died in ECRMC around 4:40 p.m. The tattoos on his body suggest that he might be in some sort of database, and Benavidez said his fingerprints have been submitted to a national registry.
On Saturday, homeless advocate and co-founder of the Brown Bag Coalition Maribel Padilla said she was told about the earlier death by many of the homeless in the area when she arrived in Calexico on Friday evening to deliver water and cool drinks due to the heat wave.
That man, she said, is known by the homeless in the community as “Cuba.” He is 53 years old, she said.
On Wednesday morning, July 14, Padilla was not aware that two homeless men had died on Friday and none of the other transients in Calexico had made any mention of the individual who passed at the hospital later in the day.
Friday’s events were what some in the city had feared would happen as the high heat gripped the Valley. For Padilla, last weekend was the third series of water runs she has made for the homeless in Calexico and El Centro since mid-June.
Padilla, whose organization also holds nightly meals for the homeless at Border Friendship Park, said she only goes on the water runs when temperatures are expected to exceed 115 degrees like they did over the weekend.
Calexico fire Capt. Arnold Rivera responded to the man found on Paulin Avenue around 3:15 p.m. He said he was not surprised about the unfortunate circumstances.
“The homeless, it seems like it affects them more, because they are out there all day,” Rivera said on Saturday. “They don’t have proper shelter, or food, nutrition, and liquid.
“This weather, it’s dangerous for anyone right now,” the captain said, adding there has already been plenty of heat-related calls geared toward the homeless this summer, and Rivera believes fire crews are averaging at least one per day.
Through Sunday evening, July 11, Padilla was out delivering room-temperature bottled water (the best for hydration, she’s been told), cold Gatorade, and the cold, wet rags for the homeless men and women’s heads that they ask for. Padilla did these runs in mid-June when the temperatures hit 119 degrees for the first time, and again at end of the June.
Last weekend’s heat wave and confusion over whether Calexico had an active cool center in which people could find some relief from the heat, brought up a few issues for Padilla and a Calexico City Council member in how the homeless are supposed to deal with the summer conditions.
Although the Calexico Community Center has reportedly been a “cool center” for the city for some time, it had not been advertised as such on any social media site until Friday.
Either way, that would not have helped either man who died, and likely wouldn’t realistically benefit any of the city’s homeless population.
“They’re not going to go there, it’s too far away,” Padilla said. “And they really won’t go to places like that because of the rules.”
The community center is located at 707 Dool Ave., several blocks northeast of downtown.
Council member Raul Ureña said he wasn’t made aware that the community center was a site until Friday, but it’s a location he has an issue with due to the fact that there is no water provided there and it is not something the city’s homeless would likely use.
Because so many of the Valley’s chronically homeless have mental health and substance abuse problems, many are often not welcome in the traditional cooling center settings, and Ureña believes places similar to the city of San Francisco’s “sobering centers,” where homeless individuals who might be under the influence are still welcome, would be useful in this circumstance.
At the very least, he said on Saturday morning, a couple pop-up tents and several cases of water near the downtown could help keep the homeless safe during these extreme temperatures.
All things considered, he does not believe the city did a good job in getting its message out that a cool center is in place, especially with the homeless. The organizations that work most closely with these populations in Calexico, like Brown Bag Coalition and Black Lives Matter Imperial Valley, he said, were not told of the community center as a potential heat shelter.
“We need a better information strategy,” Ureña said.
“It’s not like they’re on Facebook anyway,” Padilla added. “Some of them have phones but come on.”
On Friday, when Padilla went on her water run, it was not just in Calexico but to El Centro as well. The problem is one that is spread around the county and centralized in the cities, where transients find any piece of ground they can, under even the most extreme circumstances.
Along for the ride was El Centro City Council member Tomas Oliva, who called Padilla to donate an ice chest of cold water and offered to help with the distribution.
They started in south El Centro, arrived in Calexico around 5 p.m., which is when she learned about Cuba, and finished off the evening in northwest El Centro. In total, she distributed water to about 48 individuals she said on Saturday morning.
Brown Bag volunteers distributed to similar numbers among Calexcio and El Centro through Sunday.
To address the deaths and potentially prevent them in the future, Padilla made arrangements with Blanca Morales to drop off room-temperature bottled water expressly for the homeless at Calexico Wellness Center’s Thrift Store at 406 E. 2nd St.
Already housing the community refrigerator for the needy and hungry that had formerly been outside the Hope Café & Creperie on East Second Street, Padilla spread the word among the homeless that the water was available during the thrift store’s normal business hours, which are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
Friday’s deaths spoke to the systemic problem facing not just Calexico but most of California with regards to homelessness and the heat, yet it was not unexpected.
“Every summer we lose one or two. I don’t know why the city can’t open one of the empty buildings down there (in downtown),” Padilla said.
Calexico fire Capt. Rivera said this is becoming a coming occurrence for all the first responders in Imperial County due the homelessness crisis in the state.
“This wasn’t the first, I’m sorry to say,” Rivera said, “and it won’t be the last.”