As Poor Air Quality Continues, Homeless Search For Escape

Sep 15, 2020

Air quality indexes range from “unhealthy” to “hazardous” across the region, as wildfires continue to burn. And homeless people remain limited in options.

Kelly Coy, on the corner of 18th and Oak Tuesday morning.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

On the corner of Oak and 18th, 58-year-old Kelly Coy sits with his sign, that says “Anything helps, thank you.” The Army veteran is surrounded by smog, which he says he can’t do anything about.

“Y’know it’s my allergies, my eyes’ burning. But other than that, I can live with a little bit of smoke. It’s just this fire…it was bad,” Coy told me. 

When asked if he had any escape or respite from the bad air, Coy said "Not really, there’s nothing open. A place for day shelter, a place to take a shower. Cuz there’s no place to take a shower ‘round.”

The City of Eugene says it’s extended hours at a respite center at the Lane County Fairgrounds to noon on Thursday.  That’s roughly when air quality is expected to improve with incoming storm weather. An official says between COVID-19 protocols and finding buildings with proper air ventilation systems, it’s hard giving people more access.

Read the response to KLCC here, sent earlier today by the City of Eugene's Community Relations Director, Laura Hammond:

"Since Sunday, the City has been operating a 24/7 clean air shelter at the Expo Center at Lane Events Center/Fairground for vulnerable populations experiencing homelessness. We are keeping the shelter open until Thursday at noon which is when the air quality advisory ends, and we will reassess the need for extending clean air shelter space as we get closer. Currently, only one section of space in the Lane Events Center is available due to another multi-day event happening there. Our homeless outreach staff have been working to share information about the shelter’s availability directly through partner service providers. In addition the Hilyard Community Center will be open as a day time clean air shelter from 9am to 5pm today and through 12pm Thursday.

"The challenges of securing adequate, safe space and appropriate staffing while also protecting vulnerable community members from COVID-19 have been significant as we work to offer our community smoke respite shelter options. City staff have been actively reaching out to partners across the community in a search for overnight shelter space. We have faced a significant challenge in finding additional space that is large enough to accommodate COVID-19 protections with HVAC systems that can ensure safe air quality. We appreciate the help of community partners in identifying additional respite sites."The City of Eugene and Lane County have been working together to establish clean air shelters since Wednesday, September 9. These started out at Hilyard and Petersen Barn Community Centers and the Lane Events Center for people who do not have access to indoor shelter. The shelters were consolidated into one shelter at the Lane Events Center on Friday.

"The number of people experiencing homelessness and relying on illegal camping in Eugene and Lane County was significant prior to the COVID-19. As a result of the pandemic, capacity at local shelters and centers is even more limited to allow for physical distancing. This has added considerable additional strain on a system that had already reached capacity. Oregon Health Authority has stated that congregate shelter should be a last resort given the risks of COVID transmission. We are acutely aware of this as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in our community, a number of which have been linked to congregate care facilities.

"To date Lane County has worked with homeless service providers to distribute N95 masks, so far supplying 360. The City is currently working to set up distribution of additional masks to homeless service providers to support demand."

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Copyright 2020, KLCC.