Mahnaz said she's been hospitalized each of the past three years because of smoke. Credit: Nina Riggio

Far too many homeless Oaklanders have no good options for escaping the smoke blanketing our skies and city. Tiny dangerous particles from fires burning hundreds of miles away easily leak into their tents, shelters, and vehicles. Oakland’s skies have been “unhealthy” for 30 days straight, and over the past month, we’ve seen lots of advisories about how Californians can protect themselves from the hazardous air: stay inside with the doors and windows shut, buy an air purifier, and so on. Very little of this advice is relevant to people who don’t have secure housing.

Mahnaz has been homeless for three years and currently lives in the Wood Street encampment in West Oakland. She’s had asthma since she was born, and was hospitalized each of the last three years with pneumonia due to fire-related smoke. She noted that it’s hard for unsheltered people to take precautions right now because of all the other problems they’re dealing with.

“We’re just out here trying to survive, and I think the wildfire smoke is just something that isn’t really on our minds,” said Mahnaz outside her home in the Wood Street encampment on Saturday afternoon, surrounded by dozens of bicycles she and her brother fix up. “Our bodies are just used to this treatment in general.”

Shorty, another unsheltered Wood Street resident who was also born with bronchial asthma, suffered a traumatic brain injury in the 1970s while enlisted in the U.S. military. She worked as a firefighter in Humboldt County about 30 years ago, which may have exposed her to harmful levels of smoke. During wildfire season, she said she uses her inhalers twice as often. “I think I suffered some lifelong effects that play into my asthma acting up more now,” she said.

Shorty said her lungs might have been harmed decades ago when she worked as a firefighter. Credit: Nina Riggio

Research has shown that houseless people live with higher rates of respiratory issues, including asthma or chronic bronchitis. People who seek shelter under highways or near ports are exposed to more particulate matter in the exhaust from cars, trains, and boats.

On Friday, Oakland opened air respite centers at the Dimond Library, the North Oakland Senior Center, the 81st Avenue Branch Library, and at the St. Vincent de Paul Community Center. Each can allow just 20 to 25 people in at a time due to the need to maintain social distancing because of COVID-19. There are over 4,000 homeless Oakland residents and 79% are unsheltered, meaning they live on the street instead of in a hotel, shelter, or other temporary housing situation. (The Oaklandside is reporting further on these respite centers; stay tuned.)

The Dimond Library respite center on Saturday was under-utilized. Credit: Nina Riggio
Volunteers with the United Front Against Displacement handed out masks over the weekend. Credit: Nina Riggio

Volunteer groups like Masks2all, Mask Oakland, and the United Front Against Displacement, or UFAD, have been distributing masks that protect people from smoke and COVID-19.

“Yesterday, we passed out over 400 N95 masks to unhoused residents of Wood Street, and probably had the most volunteers show up to this community collective action day than we ever have before,” said Dayton Andrews, one of the founding members of UFAD.

Will, who describes himself as a mobile street mechanic who fixes people’s cars, lives in an RV on Wood Street beneath the MacArthur Maze freeway interchange. “I think we’re doing okay down here, only because we get a nice breeze coming from the bay, off the ocean, but lately my eyes have been burning a bit more than normal,” he said.

Will said his eyes have been burning lately because of the polluted air in West Oakland. Credit: Nina Riggio
Wood Street residents Willie and Shorty share a laugh while moving water. Credit: Nina Riggio

On Saturday afternoon, the area around the MacArthur Maze saw AQI levels of about 180. Will was one of a few hundred residents who received an N95 mask from UFAD, and said he would most likely start wearing it.

Another resident of Wood Street, Willie, said that the effects of the wildfire smoke really snuck up on him. “I don’t have any asthma like a lot of other folks do out here, but I’m still trying to stay out of it as much as possible. I’ve had a headache for a few days now,” he said as he helped his friend Shorty push a cart full of water to her shelter.