A man sits in the midst of a homeless encampment, with shopping carts and tents in front of him and behind him. He is wearing an N-95 mask to protect against the smoke.

German student Corvin Busche sits at a smoky homeless encampment while studying unsheltered communities in Oakland in 2017. (Drew Costley/Oakland North)
 ‘It’s easy to ignore that there are thousands of people living outside until your experience of being outside is compromised’

Early one morning, Robin Silver noticed the smell of smoke heavy in the air. “I have asthma. I’ve had to use my inhalers twice as much as normal,” said Silver, who is unhoused. The smog-like conditions that have settled over the Bay Area in recent weeks are unavoidable for all Bay Area residents. However, 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” [COPD], 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 in 2018 during the Carr Fire, which burned in Shasta and Trinity counties. 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. 

“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,” said Cassandra Williams, the co-founder of Mask Oakland—a self-described community relief project that responds to the smoke crises—and now the COVID crisis—in the Bay Area. “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 founded in 2017 to provide protective masks to vulnerable populations in Oakland after the North Bay fires. The organization has raised tens of thousands of dollars from people all over the nation, mostly through the payment app, Venmo. In one week alone, they were able to distribute over 13,000 masks to those suffering in the smoke caused by the CZU and LNU Lightning Complex fires. As is their practice, they have shared their bounty with organizations and volunteers in Berkeley and San Francisco.

“If you’re homeless, there’s two seasons: rainy, and not rainy…We were sort of ready for the rainy season before the smoke. Now we’re really ready.”

Williams, who founded 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. 

“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 Oakland, 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 200 in the recent weeks.

Bay Area health officials are advising residents to stay indoors and limit time and exertion outside. But for people who must live and sleep outside, exposure to the elements is 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.

A volunteer gently puts a mask on an older woman's face.
Mask Oakland volunteers hand out masks in 2018. (Chani Bockwinkel)

According to a study by Canada’s 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 by concerned individuals.

“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”.

This year is particularly challenging due to the coronavirus crisis. In previous years, public libraries and homeless shelters extended their hours to act as respite centers. However, the majority of these institutions have been closed for months because of the pandemic, and have yet to open their doors to individuals who are looking for a place to get out of the smoke.

The fires that are ravaging 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 grow, and 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 N-95 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 a resident of South Berkeley encampment, First They Came For The Homeless, who goes by the name Jim Squatter. “We were sort of ready for the rainy season before the smoke. Now we’re really ready.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Street Spirit.

Kate Wolffe is a reporter and weekend host at KQED.