Volunteers distribute respiratory masks to the homeless in Oakland

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Last week, as historic wildfires in the North Bay caused hazardous air quality for the rest of the Bay Area, Max Airborne sat in their recently-renovated home in Richmond. Airborne, who uses “they” as their preferred pronoun, realized that although they were in a room with closed, double-paned windows, protected from the smoke, homeless people in Oakland, where they used to live and still work, were outdoors breathing air filled with particles of ash and oil.

“I can do an okay job of actually sealing myself off the dangerous air that’s happening right now,” said Airborne, one of the founders of the Oakland-based disaster preparedness organization Lightning Bolt. “People who live outside can’t do that. Who gets to survive? That’s a very political question. If you have a house, you have a better chance.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) recommended via press release that residents stay indoors to avoid breathing smoke from the fire. The group suggested that people who must be outside wear N95 particulate respirator masks, which filter out 95 percent of non-oil based particles, like burned wood, grass, and leaves.

But Oakland’s homeless population couldn’t do either. Although some have built structures or have tents that they rest in, they don’t have houses or apartments to shelter inside. Many of them can’t access or afford the masks recommended for use.

Lightning Bolt, along with people in other Oakland organizations that work with/advocate for the homeless, including Feed the People, The Village, and East Oakland Collective, have been collecting respiratory masks, raising funds to buy them and distributing them. One organization, Mask Oakland, was even founded with the sole purpose of getting respiratory masks to the homeless and poor in Oakland. Since last Wednesday, the groups have collectively distributed over 2,000 masks.

“When I went outside and saw almost no one had masks on I was really upset,” said J Redwoods, an Emeryville resident and trans and disability activist who last week founded Mask Oakland with Cassandra Williams, an Oakland resident. Redwoods, who uses “they” as their preferred pronoun, used $350 of their own money to buy 300 respiratory masks and handed them out to people on the streets.

Redwoods went to a “couple of different homeless camps” in Oakland, then connected online with a few people who were also concerned with how the homeless were dealing with the poor air quality.

A day earlier, Needa Bee, who works with the Housing Advocacy Working Group, began collecting masks, too. Bee worked with Feed the People and The Village to distribute them. “Everybody was scrambling to get masks and everybody was being told to get indoors and close your windows,” Bee said. “And the thought that I had was, ‘But the homeless don’t have that luxury. So do something about it.’”

On Sunday, Oct. 17, Corvin Busche spoke with the residents of a homeless encampment in front of their camp at 5th and Market Streets, right under interstate 880, one of the busiest highways in California. Busche is studying Oakland’s homeless community for his thesis at Leipzig University of Applied Sciences in Germany and has been spending a lot of time with homeless people.

Busche doesn’t sleep in an encampment–he sleeps in his car–so he wasn’t exactly well-equipped to stave off the bad air quality caused by the Wine Country wildfires. He said he didn’t think his car offered much protection from the smoke, and that when he was outside he could smell the difference in the air and see a thin layer of white ash from the smoke. “It was like making a fire in the woods,” Busche said. “Everyday, all the time, it smells like this.”

Busche said that a woman who rode past on a bicycle had dropped off four masks to him and the other men at the camp. He said that he couldn’t tell the difference in the air quality while he was wearing it, but that having a mask helped to calm his worries.

Vhazsah Lex LaFae lives two blocks away from the encampment at 5th and Market, in a tent on 7th Street. She said that she received a mask near where she lives on Saturday. She said she thought the smoke was fog at first but was affected by the poor air quality nonetheless.

“I was extremely tired. I slept for a lot longer than usual,” LaFae said. “I was lethargic … and my skin broke out.”

Many homeless people in Oakland didn’t want to speak to a reporter for this story, but a man at the camp where Busche was hanging out said he couldn’t tell the difference in air quality because the air is already polluted by freight trucks and cars passing by on the highway.

This is one of the reasons why groups in Oakland are continuing to distribute masks, although the Napa fires are increasingly being contained. And although the air quality has improved for much of Oakland, there is still a possibility that wind could carry more smoke from the wildfires into the East Bay. The three fires that burned the most land, are the Nuns/Adobe/Norbbom/Pressley/Patrick, the Atlas and the Tubbs fires. They were still burning as of press time.

And as recently as Tuesday afternoon the Environmental Protection Agency’s online air quality monitor AIRNow has registered the air quality in parts of Oakland as unhealthy.

“A lot of people don’t feel like they are that in need,” Redwoods said. “And one of the things we tell people is that [breathing in particles], even if you don’t feel or see it, could be damaging to you. That can be long-term damage in some cases.”

In addition to collecting and distributing masks, groups like Lightning Bolt and Mask Oakland have been raising money to buy them. Lightning Bolt has held two online fundraisers within the last week. The first went to buy masks for the homeless in North and West Oakland and the second went to raise funds for the East Oakland Collective, a racial and economic equity group in East Oakland that works with the homeless in that part of the city. Mask Oakland has been raising funds since it was founded on October 12.

Candice Elder, the founder of the East Oakland Collective, said that there are still homeless people in East Oakland who haven’t gotten masks. She said that since the air quality is improving, they may use the funds raised for masks for other things people in that part of the city are asking for, like rebuilding an encampment that was recently blown over by strong winds.

Although volunteers from Feed the People, The Village, and East Oakland Collective have slowed down on mask distribution, Redwoods and Williams of Mask Oakland are still distributing masks. They have set up shop at Impact Hub, a coworking space in downtown Oakland, and are selling the masks to those who can afford to pay and giving them away for free for those who cannot. Volunteers from the other organizations haven’t completely stopped but said they are monitoring air quality and the demands of the homeless people they work with.

Either way, the volunteers and founders of the organizations all said the masks will be continue to be useful, whether or not the air quality related to the fires improves in the coming days.

“Because many of them live under freeways and unfortunately don’t get too close their windows or escape the pollutants that are around them, maybe this is something they can use,” Bee said.

Or, she pointed out, they can use them “if there’s another crisis.”

One Comment

  1. Claudia Leung

    Thanks for reporting. I have to point out though that in your first paragraph before you mention that Max Airbone goes by “they” you refer to them as “her.” Please correct that per AP guidelines. Thanks.

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