As temperatures begin to drop in some parts of America, the West Coast is still burning. For the uninitiated, there is little shelter from the devastation caused by this year’s bushfire season – including some of the worst air quality in the world.
Environmental disaster is coming for all of us, if you haven’t already. But uninhabited people are unintentionally on the front lines in places like California, where wildfires have become an annual crisis. Los Angeles and the Bay Area have the second and third largest numbers of homeless people in America, respectively, and Los Angeles and the Bay Area have the smallest and second smallest proportion of immunized homeless people, of all US metropolitan areas.
“It’s only the first month of the fire season, the second month, and we’ve already broken all records,” Queen Jasmine Redwoods of Mask Oakland, a community-based aid organization led by members of the queer community and trans people that launched in 2017, told Motherboard.
The cities of Oakland and Berkeley have announced Clean Air Comfort Centers for non-residents, with a capacity of 20-25 people to accommodate social distancing. But some of them never opened, and none of the rest centers opened overnight. In a part of Los Angeles’ Sepulveda Basin known for housing homeless camps, a person believed to be homeless is found dead in the aftermath of the fire. Over the weekend, police shut down a camp held during protests over the killing of George Floyd; Activists suspect the timing was retaliation, after the unrelated shooting of two Sharif representatives. (The sheriff’s ministry said the eviction was due to “deteriorating conditions.”)
Anita “Nida” de Assis Mirai, an organization with The Village in Oakland, describes the mutual aid group as “a grassroots movement of uninhabited people, insecure people and our resident allies” led by those directly affected. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of The Village have worked to bring uninhabited people to food and water despite shortages, and escorted them to unused hotel rooms that the city provided. This was, says Mirali, despite local officials’ failure to enforce bans on the evictions, disinfection of camps, hauling and seizing cars where many of the uninhabited were staying.
“Not being able to stay indoors or shelter in place or otherwise, people get dizzy, lethargic, people who are already suffering from a weak respiratory system,” Mirali told Motherboard.
Last week, the Redwoods said the Oakland mask received 20,000 requests for masks from local organizations supporting the shelter. They said, “One of my volunteers personally distributed, like, 600 masks on her skateboard in San Francisco on Sunday after she did 1100 the previous day with her friend.” In coordination with Mask4America and local mutual aid groups, Mask Oakland sent 2,400 masks to Seattle and another 9,000 to cities in Oregon in the last week alone.
Dozens of people went missing in Oregon last week while tens of thousands were evacuated. The Multnomah County-Portland Joint Homeless Services office has operated three outpatient shelters since April in an effort to help save resources during COVID-19. “COVID has really changed a lot of how we do outreach,” Denise Terriault, communications coordinator at the Joint Office of Homeless Services, told Motherboard. Terriolt said they had succeeded in moving more people voluntarily to hotels to escape the air, and partnered with local mutual aid groups to distribute masks earlier this month in preparation for the smoke.
Displaced communities have also been threatened by the right-wing vigil. After a video clip spread on YouTube that mistakenly claimed that homeless camps were occupied by “Antifa”, online threats against the camps grew on right-wing news outlets and platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. “There was a lot of fear and anxiety last weekend in those camps. And then when that started to fade, the winds came back,” says Terriault, causing damage to the camp infrastructure.
The disruption has permeated communities in Oregon, as civilian checkpoints stop those who lost their homes while fleeing the fires. As reported by The Guardian, these checkpoints have passed without objection by law enforcement, resulting in a vigil targeting people of color. The number of homeless people in Multnomah County has increased in recent years, and given the scale of losses from fires thus far, it is expected to continue to rise.
Organizers who spoke with Motherboard agreed that although the situation is new, their demands have not changed, and are the same demands that they have been making for years. “The combination of [COVID-19 and fires] is not necessary for any of these things to kill you,” said the Redwoods. “I don’t think anyone is actually studying the effects of 24/7 exposure.”
“Before all this madness happened, we always said that the only way, and the only intervention that will really end homelessness, and that will really affect and change the lives of non-domesticated people, is permanent housing or adequate long-term housing,” Merali said. “Both COVID and then fires prove our point. . “
“If we actually had smoke like this for months in a row, every year, it wouldn’t just affect people without any shelter. They’ll bear the brunt of that because they’re outside,” says Theriault. “But climate change will spoil everyone.”
Of course, climate change looks different in cooler places with more intense winters. In Philadelphia’s JTD camp, a camp for the homeless in Van Kollen Park, the city, uninhabited residents dealt with constant eviction threats from the city and local police, as well as condemnation from affluent neighborhood residents. Now, temperatures are slowly dropping. “This is not the first winter that people [in] camp go through,” Sterling Johnson, an organizer at the Black and Brown Worker Caucus, told Motherboard.
Johnson is confident that society has the flexibility to wait for the city to fulfill their demands, including societal control of the city’s public housing authority, expelling policemen who harass and displace homeless individuals, and protecting camps such as Camp JTD.
Johnson said, “Everybody here has done a lot of work, the organizers as well as all the residents, all the people, to make sure this place goes smoothly. This has to do with the strength of [a] movement that has been going on for years.