Homeless Californians Doubly At Risk As Wildfires And Pandemic Collide

"Our homeless residents are breathing ash right now," one advocate said of the unhealthy air affecting unhoused people already at heightened risk for COVID-19.

In California, three major crises have collided this week: a decadeslong affordable housing crisis, the monthslong coronavirus pandemic, and now, days of growing wildfires, each one leaving the state’s thousands of homeless residents particularly at risk.

“The sky is smoky, the sun is orange — it’s chokingly so,” said JoLyn McMillan, the head of Stockton’s Shelter for the Homeless, one of the largest homeless shelters in Northern California. “We’re seeing an uptick in respiratory issues, a lot more coughing. The ash is everywhere right now, it rains on us all day long. Our homeless residents are breathing ash right now.”

As of Friday midday, about 20 major wildfires were burning across the state, killing five people, burning hundreds of homes and spurring evacuations of 119,000 residents so far. The biggest fires — the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Sonoma and Napa counties and the SCU Lightning Complex fires between San Jose and Stockton — have each burned over 219,000 acres, placing them among the top 10 largest fires in the state’s history.

Smoke from the multiple fires has spread throughout the region, bringing air quality the EPA qualified as “very unhealthy” to places like Vacaville and Stockton on Thursday, and as “unhealthy” to Berkeley, San Jose and other Bay Area cities on Friday.

“It’s COVID versus smoke inhalation.”

- JoLyn McMillan, head of Stockton’s Shelter for the Homeless

For homeless people, particularly those who are unsheltered, constant exposure to bad air can leave them at risk for respiratory issues. Meanwhile, homeless populations are already more likely to have health conditions, including respiratory issues like bronchitis and asthma, partly due to their regular over-exposure to air pollutants.

Unhoused residents are also more at risk for COVID-19, which is caused by a virus that affects the respiratory system. Many homeless people sleep in congregate settings like shelters or encampments where it can be hard to maintain social distancing. Access to medical support is challenging, and following other preventive guidelines like frequent hand-washing is particularly hard.

“We’re doing everything we can, bringing them on the grounds, windows shut,” McMillan said of efforts to bring people who live outdoors into shelters to protect them from inhaling smoke. “But that’s a Catch-22 because public health says keep windows open because it’s better for COVID to have ventilation. It’s COVID versus smoke inhalation.”

“That’s the balance we’re really struggling with — daily, hourly, every night,” she added. “It’s trying to assess how we can keep our people safest from the virus, smoke and ash.”

A smoke-filled sky on Aug. 19, 2020, in Hayward, California, as multiple fires in Northern California cause poor air quality.
A smoke-filled sky on Aug. 19, 2020, in Hayward, California, as multiple fires in Northern California cause poor air quality.
Aric Crabb/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

In Vacaville, about an hour’s drive northwest of Stockton, Colleen Berumen had to evacuate the small Opportunity House Shelter she directs due to the fires. About 25 homeless parents and kids — half of the shelter’s usual capacity due to mandates to minimize coronavirus spread — had to be quickly placed with family or friends nearby, while some went to a detox center in Vallejo, an hour away.

“There was a lot of panic. People were very scared,” she said. They’ve since been able to move back into the shelter, but now, like everyone else in the region, they’re coping with the smoke-filled air. The shelter has been handing out masks — previously for the coronavirus, and now for the smoke — to the about 100 unsheltered homeless people in the area, suggesting they go to temporary evacuation centers set up at local schools.

But after the fires pass and those evacuation centers close, there isn’t a place for unsheltered homeless people to stay 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The local library and senior center are open from about noon to 8 p.m., but outside those hours, there’s no easy relief from the heat and smoke.

“Between this, the fires, the pandemic, people need to have a place to go,” Berumen said.

In Berkeley, less than an hour’s drive southwest of Vacaville, Calleene Egan — who runs Berkeley Food and Housing, which operates several shelters — is most concerned about the area’s senior population.

“We’re seeing more people over 65 than ever before, and that’s really scary because they’re more susceptible to health conditions,” Egan said, noting that the homeless population in California is aging. Her group has been trying to distribute masks and bottled water, and to identify shelters for seniors on the streets.

“In response to COVID, we have programs targeted at people over 65. ... Now adding this layer of poor air quality on top of it is even more impactful to their health.”

Older people are notably at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19. And medical professionals have raised concerns about the potential dangers of smoke mingling with the coronavirus in people’s lungs.

“We know that wildfire exposure to communities increases the risk of lower respiratory tract infection,” Dr. John Balmes — a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, who also teaches and studies the health effects of air pollution at the University of California, Berkeley — told HuffPost earlier this week. “So there’s concern in the context of the pandemic that wildfire smoke exposure would increase the risk of moving from mild to more severe COVID-19.”

People of color, who are disproportionately infected and dying from the coronavirus nationwide, are also disproportionately represented among the Bay Area’s homeless population. In San Francisco, for instance, Black people make up only about 6% of residents, but an alarming 37% of those who are unhoused.

“With these disasters, our homeless population increases, and people who’ve never experienced homelessness are now experiencing it.”

- Angela Upshaw, associate director for Berkeley Food and Housing

Northern California’s homeless population has ballooned in recent years. All the homeless services advocates who spoke to HuffPost commended local and state governments’ efforts to house homeless residents during the pandemic, with hundreds of millions in state funding helping to move thousands of the most medically vulnerable homeless people into hotels and other accommodations.

However, particularly with the increased urgency due to the fires, there is still not enough shelter or housing in the region to meet the need.

“I think what they’re doing is great; can they do more? Absolutely. Do we need more? Absolutely,” said Andrea Urton, who runs HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara, which operates the largest shelter in San Jose. Urton said she’d like to see more resources provided to local government — for housing departments at the city and county level to get more staff since the current employees are “working like crazy, stretched really thin,” she said.

Angela Upshaw, an associate director for Berkeley Food and Housing, noted that cutting down the population in shelters to eliminate crowding during the pandemic has only increased the need for beds. And sometimes, homeless clients encounter barriers to getting into the government-procured hotel rooms, either because rooms are already occupied by health workers who have to isolate from family, or because some clients don’t have IDs or get turned away for appearing disheveled or visibly struggling with mental health or behavioral issues.

“With these disasters, our homeless population increases, and people who’ve never experienced homelessness are now experiencing it,” Upshaw said of people who may become homeless from fires burning their homes down. The current fires in Sonoma have burned through over 480 homes so far. In 2017, fires leveled thousands of homes in the same county, and in 2018, the fire in Paradise demolished about 18,000 homes. “It puts an additional drain on our already small resources. It’s concerning.”

Just in the mile radius around the Stockton shelter, there are about 200 men who sleep outdoors, in camps, McMillan said. She wants not one-time funding for coronavirus purposes, but yearslong, sustained funding.

“This is becoming more of an annual thing in California,” Egan said of the fires and smoke-filled air leaving homeless populations at risk. “Unfortunately, I hate saying this: If there’s more fires, or next year, you need a plan in place for people experiencing homelessness.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Newsom declared a statewide emergency earlier this week and has requested a major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump to provide California with further resources.

All of the homeless services providers HuffPost spoke to asked those who are concerned about Californians suffering from wildfires not to forget their homeless neighbors.

“For one thing, it can happen to you,” Berumen said. “Just remember them. Remember there are people who are unsheltered, many of them sheltering in places most susceptible to these wildfires.”

“I was lucky,” Berumen, who lives in the Vacaville area, added. “I had people pounding on my front door. Who’s pounding on their front door under the bridge? They could be in a deep sleep and not even know what’s going on and the fire could rush right over them. Don’t forget them.”

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