How Air Pollution Impacts Homeless People

originally published in the Street Spirit

Robin Silver first noticed the smoke from the Camp Fire early on Friday, November 9—the morning after the blaze broke out in Butte County. “I have asthma. I’ve had to use my inhalers twice as much as normal” said Silver, who has lived at First They Came For The Homeless—the homeless encampment on Adeline Street—since January.


But Friday morning was just the beginning of the smoke that settled over the Bay Area in late November, after the town of Paradise was ravaged by flames. And while the smog-like conditions were unavoidable for all Bay Area residents, unhoused people face a disproportionate burden when the air quality is bad.


Silver said that another resident of his encampment checked himself into Alta Bates because of the bad air quality. “He almost definitely has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” he said—a grouping of lung conditions that makes it difficult to breathe under normal circumstances. “He had been talking about having trouble with the air for about a week before he decided to check himself in.”


Silver himself was hospitalized during the Carr Fire—which burned in Shasta and Trinity counties in July. He stayed in the hospital for 24 hours, and was treated for both bronchitis and pneumonia. This time around he hasn’t had to go to the hospital, despite suffering from achy joints and low energy levels.


“I’m just grateful I’m not doing too bad this time,” he said.


The smoke from the Carr fire didn’t have the same effect on Bay Area residents as the Camp Fire did. Cassandra Williams, the co-founder of Mask Oakland along with fellow activist J. Redwoods, says she believes the constant reminder of bad air quality is why their organization has been able to raise so much money.


“It’s easy to ignore that there are thousands of people living outside all of the time until your experience of being outside is compromised.” Williams said. “This situation served as somewhat of an eye-opener, a wake-up call for people to the experience of someone on the street”.


Mask Oakland was was founded in 2017 to provide protective masks to vulnerable populations in Oakland after the North Bay fires. The organization has made about $77,000 from people all over the nation, mostly through the payment app, Venmo. They have been able to distribute nearly 40,000 masks in the two weeks after the Camp fire alone, and have shared their bounty with organizations and volunteers in Berkeley and San Francisco.


“Someone on the street is already living in crisis in a lot of ways. This smoke is just adding onto the stress. They are the most vulnerable population here,” she said.


Olantis Livingston, an unhoused person and Street Spirit vendor living in Berkeley, said he has found himself constantly straining to breathe in the smoky air. Unfortunately, his masks don’t make things much better—he says the N-95 mask he has constricts his breathing even more. His more heavy duty gas mask works better, but gets in the way of communicating with the pedestrians who he relies on for donations. Most of the time, he forgoes a mask altogether.


“A lot of people have said they’re having headaches,” he said of the other unhoused folks he’s spoken to. “Things are tough, those people are burning up out there, all kinds of toxic things are getting into the air.”


Air quality index (or “AQI”) values over 100 are said to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, and the air quality in the Bay Area has far exceeded that, reaching over 240 in the aftermath of the Camp Fire. The air was deemed some of the worst in the world in November, ranking among cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which are known for their air pollution.


Many schools closed in the area, advising students to stay indoors and limit time and exertion outside. But for people who must live and sleep outside, exposure to the elements is a unavoidable. When the outside air is toxic, unhoused people must deal with the ramifications of exposure far more than housed people, who have access to masks, in-home air filtration, and resources that allow them to limit outside exposure or even leave town.


According to a study by the Centre for Research on Inner City Health, people without permanent residences are already amongst the most vulnerable groups in developed regions. Often these people, who are already relegated to the edges of our cities, suffer from high rates of poorly controlled chronic disease, respiratory conditions, smoking and mental illness, all of which make them more susceptible to disease brought about by air pollution.


The air pollution from wildfires is particularly dangerous because of small particulate matter: the minuscule irritants such as ash, dust and chemicals that are burned in the fire and carried in the smoke. This particulate matter can seep into the bloodstream, trigger heart attacks, and worsen respiratory problems. Scientists believe it can go even further, causing additional health complications and even diabetes.


For people like Livingston, who can’t always use their masks, the only other option for serious harm reduction is to leave the Bay Area until the smoke clears, or stay inside as much as possible, neither of which are realistic for him.


Many believe that the cities and counties haven’t done enough to help the unsheltered folks in the Bay Area. Some libraries and other public indoor spaces have extended their hours, but no state of emergency was declared by any county in the Bay Area. Mask distribution was spearheaded by grassroots groups like Mask Oakland, or fundraisers like ones started by UC Berkeley junior Gabby Schvartsman, who handed out about 200 masks with a team of 30 other UC Berkeley students.


“The only reason that Mask Oakland exists is because there was a failure to act on the part of local government in general.” said Williams, referencing inaction after the 2017 North Bay Fires. “It’s the second year in a row: we have a new precedent. We had an entire year to put something in place, and when it happened again, [local government] didn’t respond at all”.


In response to public pressure and no signs of air quality improving, branches of Oakland public library acted as respite centers, and the South branch of the Berkeley library extended their hours. In addition, Oakland shelter St. Vincent de Paul opened for 24-hours per day to accommodate up 65 unsheltered adults wishing to escape the smoky conditions. After 10 days of poor air quality, San Francisco decided to open up its largest shelters during the day.


The fires that are burning up both ends of California aren’t going to stop any time soon. As more people are displaced by the wildfires, and more unhoused people are affected by toxic smoke, the unhoused population will become even more at-risk. Next time conditions are smoky, experts warn to stay indoors whenever possible and stay hydrated, and if going outside, wearing an N95 mask. Mask Oakland is holding onto a stash of masks for people who may need them in the coming months.


“If you’re homeless, there’s two seasons: rainy, and not rainy” said another resident of First They Came For The Homeless, who goes by Jim Squatter. “We were sort of ready for the rainy season before the smoke. Now we’re really ready.”


Kate Wolffe is a journalist who lives in Berkeley.