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North Oakland Senior Center

Oakland’s clean air respite centers see few visitors

on September 22, 2020

After experiencing air quality levels considered ‘unhealthy’ for over three weeks, the City of Oakland opened its first ‘clean air respite centers’ on September 11. But the centers saw staggeringly low numbers of visitors in their first week.

The first two centers opened at the North Oakland Senior Center and Dimond District Library. The next day, the city added two more centers at the St. Vincent de Paul community center and 81st Ave. library. The four facilities, all of which are equipped with air-conditioning and filtration systems, offered residents an indoor space to sit down and breathe clean air. 

Heatwaves, wildfires and orange skies hit Northern California in rapid succession over the past three weeks, as climate change has led to a higher frequency of extreme weather events in the region. In Oakland, a city with over 4,000 houseless residents, the need for a coordinated government response is particularly urgent, especially at a time when closed libraries and public spaces leave many vulnerable residents without safe spaces to seek protection. 

City Administrator Edward Reiskin, whose office oversaw the respite center plan in coordination with several city departments, acknowledged that the city was playing “catch up.” 

“We have not had a robust program, process and protocol for quickly standing up shelters for this purpose,” he said during the September 15 council meeting. Reiskin faced public scrutiny at the meeting from residents and Council members who felt the city should have opened the respite centers sooner and done a better job informing the public about them. Several Councilmembers said the standards for opening these centers were too high. According to Reiskin, the centers are activated when the air quality index reaches 250 AQI or temperatures are forecasted to reach 100 degrees. 

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas cited a study that suggested the AQI threshold should be lowered to 100, which is when the air quality becomes unhealthy for sensitive groups like the elderly, children and people with lung disease. Under those benchmarks, the respite centers would’ve first opened almost a month earlier. “It could be next weekend that the air gets smoky again; we have to make sure we are able to do better than this weekend,” Bas said. 

Each facility can accommodate up to 25 people at a time. The city had planned to limit visiting time to an hour if lines began forming, but the facilities received hardly any visitors.  Some longtime local activists think the low turnout was due to a lack of communication from city officials. 

Oakland organizer Harry Louis Williams began collecting and distributing N95 masks two weeks ago when he noticed community members with asthma were struggling to breathe the smoke-filled air. He said he would have visited the Dimond Library center but was unaware of the initiative. 

“Consider the fact that I have access to the internet and a large network of people,” Williams said. “If I didn’t find out about clean air centers, the unhoused and elderly were also not privy to this potentially life-saving information.”

The City Administrator’s spokesperson  L. Autumn King acknowledged the low turnout and said the city will “continue to evaluate” its outreach strategy. The final report she provided listed a total of 26 visitors at all four centers. The city’s outreach was delayed, which could have caused the low turnout. The North Oakland Senior Center and Dimond District Library centers opened for the first time at noon, with no public notice. The press release wasn’t sent until almost 2 p.m. that day, while the centers were scheduled to close by 5 and 7 p.m.,  respectively. Both facilities are easily accessible via AC transit bus lines. The North Oakland center is about a half mile from a small tent community on the South Berkeley border, yet the centers only saw three visitors between them that day. 

The following day the city added two more centers. All four facilities remained open through Sunday evening. The St. Vincent de Paul community center, the most central of the four, is located on San Pablo Ave. across from a large tent community. It received a total of ten visitors. The 81st Ave. library, which sits in a residential neighborhood about two blocks southwest of the main commercial intersection on International Blvd., received a single visitor, the lowest turnout of all four centers.

This map shows the heat vulnerability of each Census Tract in Oakland, with more detailed information available for specific vulnerable groups if you hover over that area. To see how vulnerable your home is to heat, click the magnifying class in the bottom left, type in your address and click enter. The data for this map was acquired from the Census Bureau, Google Maps and California Heat Assessment Tool. Map made by Ari Sen. 

According to the city, Human Services department staff conducted outreach near the facilities and sent a request to distribute the information to “a wide group of homeless providers.” Oakland North asked the city to provide a full list of providers the press release was sent to. They did not respond directly to our request by press time. They did confirm that Operation Dignity, a nonprofit focused on homelessness, sent a street team to distribute information on the respite centers during their Friday outreach shifts. 

Activist Needa Bee of The Village Oakland, a grassroots organization led by unhoused and housing insecure folks, said inadequate outreach is only part of the reason the centers weren’t utilized. 

“People are not just gonna leave their homes curbside because the first thing that’ll happen is their home will get ransacked,” Bee said.  

Bee welcomes the respite centers and thinks they should’ve been open sooner, but she doesn’t consider moving people into temporary enclosed spaces, risking COVID-19 transmission, a solution. 

“The interventions that bureaucrats come up with might be well-intentioned, but they’re not informed in reality,” Bee said.  Instead, she sees the extreme weather as another reason the city needs to provide permanent housing for the homeless. “The pandemic showed that housing people was not just a human right but also a public health intervention. The wildfires have continued to highlight this.”

The council is scheduled to hear an update on the respite centers on October 20, when the city’s extreme weather activation plan is discussed.

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