Wildfires Put the Unhoused On the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis

As temperatures begin to drop across some parts of America, the West Coast is still burning. For the unhoused, there is little shelter from the devastation brought on by this year’s wildfire season—including some of the worst air quality in the world.

Environmental catastrophe is coming for us all, if it hasn’t already arrived. But unhoused people are unwillingly at the frontlines in places like California, where wildfires have become a yearly crisis. Los Angeles and the Bay Area have the second- and third-largest homeless populations in America, respectively, and Los Angeles and the Bay Area have the smallest and second-smallest percentage of sheltered homeless people, out of all American metropolitan areas. 

“It’s only the first month of the fire season, second month, and we already have shattered all records,” Quinn Jasmine Redwoods of Mask Oakland, a queer- and trans-led community aid organization launched in 2017, told Motherboard. 

The cities of Oakland and Berkeley announced clean air respite centers for the unhoused, with capacity capped at 20 to 25 people to accommodate for social distancing. But some never opened, and none of the respite centers were open overnight. In a part of Los Angeles’ Sepulveda Basin known for sheltering homeless encampments, one person thought to be unhoused was discovered dead in the wake of the fire. Over the weekend, an encampment launched during the protests of the killing of George Floyd was shut down by police; activists suspect the timing was retaliatory, following the unrelated shooting of two sheriff’s deputies. (The sheriff’s department said the clear-out was due to “deteriorating conditions.”)

Anita “Needa” De Asis Miralle, an organizer with The Village in Oakland, describes her mutual aid group as a “grassroots movement of unhoused folks, housing insecure folks and our housed allies,” led by those directly impacted. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of The Village have worked to get unhoused people access to food and water despite shortages, and escorted them to unused hotel rooms provided by the city. This, says Miralle, was in spite of local officials’ failures to enforce moratoriums on evictions, encampment clear-outs, and tows and impounds of cars, where many unhoused people reside.

“Not being able to be indoors or shelter in place or whatnot, folks are getting dizzy, getting lethargic, folks who already have compromised respiratory systems,” Miralle told Motherboard. 

Last week, Mask Oakland received 20,000 requests for masks from local organizations supporting the unhoused, said Redwoods. “One of my volunteers personally handed out, like, 600 masks on her skateboard in San Francisco on Sunday after doing 1,100 the day before with her friend,” they said. In coordination with Mask4America and local mutual aid groups, Mask Oakland had sent 2,400 masks to Seattle and another 9,000 to cities in Oregon in the previous week alone. 

Dozens of people have gone missing in Oregon in the past week while tens of thousands evacuated. The Multnomah County-Portland Joint Office of Homeless Services has run three outdoor shelters since April in an effort to help provide resources during COVID-19. “COVID has already changed a lot of how we do outreach,” Denis Theriault, a communications coordinator with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, told Motherboard. Theriault said they succeeded in moving more people voluntarily into motels to escape the air, and partnered with local mutual aid groups to distribute masks earlier this month in preparation for the smoke.

Homeless communities have also been threatened by right-wing vigilantism. After a viral YouTube video incorrectly claimed the homeless encampments were occupied by “Antifa,” online threats against the camps grew on right-wing news outlets and platforms like YouTube and Twitter. “There was a lot of fear and anxiety for last weekend at those camps. And then as that was beginning to wane, then the wind picked up,” says Theriault, causing damage to the infrastructure of the camps.

This paranoia has bled into local communities in Oregon, where civilian checkpoints are stopping those who have lost their homes as they seek shelter while fleeing the fires; as reported by the Guardian, those checkpoints have gone largely unchallenged by law enforcement, resulting in vigilantism targeting people of color. Multnomah County’s homeless population has grown in recent years, and given the scale of loss from the fires thus far, it is expected to continue rising

The organizers who spoke with Motherboard agreed that despite the novelty of the situation, their demands haven’t changed, and are the same ones they’ve been making for years. “The combination [of COVID-19 and fires] is not necessary for either of these things to kill you,” said Redwoods. “I don’t think that anyone’s really studying the effects of 24/7 exposure.”

“Before all this madness happened, we always said that the only way, the only intervention that’s actually going to end homelessness, and that will actually, truly, impact and transform unhoused people’s lives, is permanent housing or adequate long term housing, adequate transitional housing,” said Miralle. “And both COVID and then the fires just prove our point.”

“If we really have smoke like this for months on end, every year, that won’t just affect the folks who are unsheltered. They’re going to bear the brunt of it because they’re outside,” says Theriault. “But climate change is gonna screw everyone.”

Of course, climate change looks different in colder places with more intense winters. In Philadelphia’s Camp JTD, a homeless encampment at the city’s Van Coln Park, the unhoused population has dealt with constant eviction threats from the city and local police, as well as condemnation from the neighborhood’s wealthy residents. Now, temperatures are slowly dropping. “This is not the first winter that people have experienced [at] an encampment,”  Sterling Johnson, an organizer with the Black and Brown Workers’ Collective, told Motherboard. 

Johnson is confident the community is resilient enough to wait it out, until the city meets their demands, including community control of the city’s public housing authority, firing cops who harass and displace houseless individuals, and protection for encampments like Camp JTD. 

“Everybody here has [done] a lot of work, the organizers as well as all the residents, all the people, to make sure that this place runs smoothly,” Johnson said. “This is about the strength of [a] movement that has been happening for years.”