Roy Sewell can’t decide what’s worse — the wildfire smoke that’s been lingering in the air or the plumes from the industrial buildings near the Loaves and Fishes homeless center where he stays.
“I would love to be inside,” he said. “I would have loved to have been inside and took a shower here at Loaves and Fishes.”
Like many unhoused people, the 64-year-old is struggling to find ways to escape the smoke. Many indoor services — and spaces such as malls and libraries — are closed due to the pandemic, leaving homeless people with fewer options than they’ve had in past wildfire seasons.
“They have cooling centers downtown when it’s hot, but they don’t have a place where anybody who needs to can step in and shelter to get out of this air,” Sewell said.
Sacramento County says before this summer, they had “never opened cleaner air centers and had encouraged the public to go to indoor public spaces to get respite from the smoke.”
After the triple-digit heat wave in August, the county says Sacramento, Folsom and Elk Grove kept their cooling centers open longer than originally planned, due to air quality.
The county says to determine whether to open a clean air center, it assesses information from the local air quality management district and consults with cities. The willingness of churches and other organizations to open up their doors is also a factor.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said homeless advocacy organizations had to push the city and county to keep some cooling centers open.
But he says the centers are too few and far between, and it’s not healthy for homeless people — many of whom have pre-existing respiratory conditions — to carry belongings over long distances.
He says while people in Cesar Chavez Plaza downtown might go to a clean air center at the public library across the street, people at Loaves and Fishes about a mile and half north are unlikely to make the journey.
“The city and county need to do a better job of not only letting homeless people know that cooling centers, warming centers, clean air centers are open but then providing transportation so they’re utilized,” Erlenbusch said.
Staff at Loaves and Fishes say fewer people have been coming to the services center while the air is smokey, most likely because they don’t want to exert themselves in the smoke.
Homeless individuals are also unlikely to have access to masks that can filter out particulate matter from wildfire smoke. Cloth masks and surgical masks that can prevent COVID-19 spread do not provide good protection against smoke particles, and N95 masks that do are in high demand for health care workers.
Sister Libby Fernandez runs Mercy Pedalers, a group that travels to homeless encampments to distribute food, water and other resources. She says Mercy Foundation, a philanthropy related to Dignity Health, recently gave her 10,000 KN95 masks to distribute.
“We can’t give them out fast enough,” she said.
The bad air is related to multiple weather factors including an inversion layer that experts say forms over Sacramento and traps smoke particles in the area.
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