You’d never pick him out as someone who’d been camping in the Johnson County woods for the last year.
"Yeah, not a good idea for me to use my real name,” he smiles. “I’m kind of well-known around here, so I don’t need to call any more attention to myself or where I’m hanging out.”
Bob’s been camping in the woods in and around Johnson County for more than a year now, following the loss of his construction job and a bone injury to his wrist.
With a clean brown T-shirt, a well-trimmed beard and a cigarette resting behind his right ear, he says that contrary to what people might think, being homeless is easier when it’s cold.
“People aren’t out here looking for you like they are in the summer,” he says. “Even though you can theoretically lose a body part from the cold, I was able layer up clothes and build a shelter that was insulated pretty good.”
In the summer it’s smelly, he says. He sweats all the time. It’s hard to sleep. Recent rains have left a lot of sitting water, breeding grounds for mosquitos and other insects.
“You get bit enough, you get sick, and I’ve had to worry about infections on my skin,” he says.
He walks to nonprofits or truck stops to shower when he can. Getting supplies, he says, is exhausting.
“If I need something I have to go get it on foot, carry water and food to wherever I’m (living at the time),” he says. “The other morning I walked an hour to get some work, worked all day in the heat, then walked to wherever I was going back to sleep.”
Barbara McEver, founder of Project 1020, a wintertime shelter, says that even though many of the homeless suffer more in the summer, they may not be as noticeable as they are when it’s cold. In shorts and flip-flops they blend in and can look like everyone else. She says this creates the false impression it’s less of a problem in the summer.
“They are private and don’t necessarily want to be known as homeless,” she says. “So then people believe that Johnson County doesn’t have a problem with homelessness.”
That isn’t the case, according to experts and homeless advocates. Figures compiled by Johnson County show homelessness increased in the county for the second year in a row, an indicator of increasing poverty in the county.
Dr. Ken Marshall, an emergency room physician at The University of Kansas Health System, says he understands why people exposed to the elements might prefer the cold to the heat. If they can’t find a place to cool off, it can be dangerous.
“Obviously (a person) can strip off a few layers of clothing and stay well-hydrated,” he says, “but if the body gets above its set point for a long period of time, there’s only so much it can to to offload excess heat.”
Marshall says there's a “sweet spot” at which the body self-regulates for optimal function of enzymes and chemicals. Blood vessels dilate and constrict. We sweat. Retaining too much heat over an extended period of time disrupts that equilibrium. Marshall says there have already been an unusually high number of heat-related patients in the ER in the last couple of weeks.
“Athletes, outside workers, those who stay too long in the heat enjoying outside activities,” he says. “And the longer the heat wave goes on, the more likely people are to make bad choices about being in the heat.”
For Bob, being in the heat isn’t a choice. It's the day-to-day reality of trying to stay healthy, hydrated and cool as the persistent heat wave drags on.
“In the summer you can only strip down so much,” he says. “I've done both, and I like the cold better.”