People Experiencing Homelessness Have Few Options Under a Haze of Smoke

by Carolyn Bick

On the morning of Aug. 21, Seattle’s more than 6,000 unsheltered homeless individuals awakened breathing air deemed unhealthy for everyone.

“People are just dodging it, like going to a library, or something — a public space, where they can kind of escape it,” Georgetown Tiny House Village resident advisor Andrew Constantino said. “Homeless people aren’t often in control of an indoor environment. Some people take those for granted.”

The smoky, thick air hanging over the city for the second week in a row is the result of wildfires in the Cascades and British Columbia, Canada. With an Air Quality Index rating of between 170 and 180 on Tuesday, Seattleites were breathing in air that roughly equated to smoking more than seven cigarettes in a day. The poor air quality may have both short- and long-term health effects. The National Weather Service expects an air quality warning to be in effect for the city until at least late Wednesday.

Constantino lives in the village with about 50 other people, including families, young couples, individuals, and seniors. Aside from some scratchy throats and headaches, Constantino said, the health effects of the air aren’t immediately noticeable, but “they have been noted, for sure.”

He also said he doesn’t think the city is doing enough to help the homeless population deal with the air-quality issue. When asked if any outreach workers had contacted him or the village, or if they had been offered masks, Constantino laughed.

“No, no. I would never even imagine that they would have considered such a thing,” Constantino said. “That would imply the city or public health has concerns that aren’t related to minutiae … like who is … washing their hands in some facility, or something. They are not concerned with the health and well-being of homeless individuals on the street.”

“We have millions and millions of dollars to pay police overtime to sweep campers, to say, ‘We don’t want you camping here,’ but when it comes to working on things that actually keep people off the street, or keep them safe — ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’” Constantino continued.

Seattle’s Human Services Department Director of External Affairs Meg Olberding said some of the Navigation Center team were out in the field doing normal outreach work, which includes seeing if any people experiencing homelessness want to be taken to shelters. The team also has filter masks for people who ask for them, Olberding said, but supplies are limited. She said she does not have an estimate on the number of face masks being offered to people.

“Certainly, if people are having trouble with the air, there are shelters that are available, there’s day and hygiene centers that are available,” Olberding said.

She also said daytime cooling centers are available for use, but said  there is no special plan in place to get people off the streets or increase the number of masks available, should the poor air conditions persist.

Unless they live in a tiny home encampment, nighttime options are limited to sleeping outdoors or going to shelters. South Seattle Emerald journalist Alex Garland said the latter isn’t desirable to the folks he’s met. Garland is one of a few individuals around the city either distributing masks or getting donations of masks to be distributed later.

Because of his work as a journalist, Garland had a box of masks rated for particulate matter that he normally uses to ward off pepper spray. Garland, who has a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning, said he had been putting masks in bags and distributing them to his homeless neighbors in Beacon Hill, along with notes explaining the air may make them sick.

While she isn’t distributing information, South Seattle resident Elaine Simons said she decided to collect and distribute masks. She shared the link to her Amazon list on social media, and, so far, she said, responders have donated 12 individual masks, all of which are rated for particulate matter. As the masks come in, she said, she will go out and distribute them.

Simons also said Seattleites who are fortunate enough to live in a house should put themselves in others’ shoes.

“We see it all over the place, people complaining about breathing and how they are having a hard time, and I am thinking … ‘Okay, well, we need to get out of our comfort zone,’” Simons said. “I will at least try to bring out comfort to them.”

Constantino said there is currently no plan in place for his village, should the conditions persist or worsen, but said he and others regularly check on seniors or people struggling with illness in the community, regardless of weather conditions. He also noted that, however bad the air may feel for people who live in houses, it is much worse for homeless people.

“This might be a bad week for the general population, but this is nothing, compared to how 10,000 people in our city live,” Constantino said.

Featured Photo by Carolyn Bick

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