Toxic, Smoky Air Particularly Threatens The Homeless

Sep 15, 2020

Ongoing wildfires have created a hazardous smog over the region, which can endanger people's health.  And homeless people are especially vulnerable to the poor air quality.

A homeless man and his dog rest on a Eugene street corner Monday afternoon. Shelter space and personal protective equipment are difficult to come by for many.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

While homeowners can escape the smog through sealed doors and windows, the unhoused community is at a clear disadvantage.

 

Terry McDonald is director of St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene. He says there’s a respite site at the Lane Events Center, limited to 15 people for overnight stays. There could be further expansion, but officials are also contending with multiple challenges during the fires.

 

“I think that the county and the city’s trying to catch up with the funding, that would allow them to get reimbursed for whatever efforts they do," McDonald told KLCC.  "‘Cause obviously as with the fairgrounds, you can’t just leave it unmonitored, they have to have someone in charge of the facility.” 

 

Social distancing is another factor limiting access.  Pandemic protocols advise against gathering groups of people in enclosed spaces. 

 

As for N-95 face masks, McDonald says they’re working with Oregon’s congressional delegation to secure as many from FEMA as possible. St. Vinny’s national organization sent them 50 masks this week, but they remain scarce overall due to COVID-19.

 

Air conditions are expected to improve beginning Thursday.

 

Addendum as of 12:08pm, 9/15: The City of Eugene responded to several questions from KLCC about the shelter situation.  From 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 sun breaks through after several days of thick smog and clouds over Eugene.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"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 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 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.