An eerie glow engulfs South Berkeley's Here/There encampment on Wednesday as wildfires rage in California.
An eerie glow engulfs South Berkeley’s Here/There encampment on Wednesday as wildfires rage in California. (Kit Castagne)

As the air quality climbed into the “very unhealthy” range on Friday, both Berkeley and Oakland opened clean air respite centers for unsheltered people and others who need a break from the toxic wildfire smoke.

In Berkeley, one such shelter was open in the Old City Hall building at 2134 Martin Luther King Kr. Way, from 12:30 to 6:00 p.m. on Friday, August 11. The shelter is currently closed and it is not clear whether it is going to open back up again.

In Oakland, four respite centers were open over the weekend. One is at the Dimond Library, at 3565 Fruitvale Avenue, from noon until 7:00 p.m. This center has capacity for up to 20 people at one time.

The other shelter is located in the North Oakland Senior Center, at 5714 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, from noon until 5:00 p.m. The shelter has capacity for up to 25 people at a time. These emergency shelters will be staffed by Disaster Service Workers and volunteers from the City of Oakland, according to a press release from the City Administrator’s office.

On Saturday morning, the City of Oakland announced that two additional respite centers would be open on Saturday and Sunday. One is located at the 81st Street Library, at 1021 81st Avenue, from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The other is at the St. Vincent de Paul community center, at 2272 San Pablo Avenue, and will be open from 9:00 a.m to 3:00 p.m. Capacity at each of these shelters is 25 people at one time.

All of the Oakland shelters closed on Sunday evening. It is not clear whether they plan to extend their service.

Additionally, there is one respite center in Alameda in the Alameda Free Library, at 1550 Oak Street. It will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. through Friday, September 18. At that point, the City of Alameda will re-assess whether or not to keep the center open based on the air quality.

In light of COVID-19, masks are required for guests at all three respite centers. For those who do not have them, masks and sanitizer will be provided. At the Oakland centers, staff will check the temperatures of all who wish to be admitted.

In a series of videos shot by freelance reporter Sarah Belle Lin, Autumn King—a Public Information Officer with the Oakland City Administrator’s office—explained the do’s and don’ts of the Oakland respite centers. Guests will not be permitted to take off their masks for the duration of their stay, even to eat or drink. Guests who become hungry or thirsty will need to exit and then re-enter after eating.

King also said guests would be allowed to stay for as long as they want unless the shelters reach capacity. If they do reach capacity, stays will be limited to one hour. After one hour, guests must leave and get back in line to spend more time in the respite center.

“Whoever started this I commend them, because there’s a lot of us that really need this type of assistance,” Susan Abertelli told Lin after spending three hours in the Dimond Library shelter. “We’ll be glad to come back and we are going to tell everyone we know about it.” Abertelli lives at a nearby senior center, and was seeking refuge from her apartment which she says has no air conditioning. She explained that she was given a book on entering, and spent three hours at the center reading and sitting with a friend. She plans to come back tomorrow when they open at noon.

While these centers are a welcome relief from the toxic air that has engulfed the Bay Area for the last three weeks, many feel that they have arrived too late and are insufficient to meet the needs of those living in the East Bay.

“This is a great first step without a doubt, but we are still wondering what next steps are because this Spare the Air event has been going on for a record-setting 28 days, where the air quality has been unhealthy,” said Kimberly Jones, Chief of Staff for Council President Rebecca Kaplan. Jones said the Council President has many questions about how the program will reach people in need.

“We are curious as to how many more centers are going to be opened, because there is limited capacity,” she said. “And what about folks in Deep East Oakland with limited mobility? How are they going to get to those centers, and will there be capacity once they get there?”

Since as early as July 28, Kaplan has been requesting an informational report about the City’s plans to open clean-air buildings during fire season, recently released emails show. The report will be presented at the city council meeting on Tuesday, September 15, according to a letter the Council President attached to the agenda item on clean air sites. 

None of the emergency respite centers will function as overnight shelters. Rather, at closing time, guests will be ushered toward the existing overnight shelters in the East Bay, many of which are full. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most shelters are already operating at limited capacity, and drop-in placement is extremely limited.

This shortage of shelter space leaves unhoused people to rely on face masks to protect themselves from the toxic air outside. City volunteers and as well as several volunteer organizations have been distributing cloth, N95 and KN95 masks since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Berkeleyside, Dorothy Day House and Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which contract with the city, handed out KN95 masks downtown on Friday. Groups like Masks2all and MaskOakland have distributed tens of thousands of masks since March, and will be ramping up their efforts over the weekend.

“This weekend, we hope to distribute at least 1,500 masks in Berkeley between supporting organizations serving unhoused, disabled, and elderly [populations] and direct distribution to people stuck outside in these brutal conditions,” MaskOakland founder Quinn Jasmine Redwoods told Berkeleyside.

The air quality is expected to remain unhealthy for all populations throughout the weekend. The county is urging everyone to stay indoors if they are able. We will update this article with more information about the respite centers as it becomes available.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.