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Sacramento’s Air Is Unhealthy, So What About The Homeless?

As smoke from nearby wildfires settles on top of the Sacramento region, the air quality has worsened to unhealthy levels. Some are proposing cleaner-air centers to provide some relief for the area’s homeless population.

(TNS) — Twana James can barely speak.

With wildfire smoke descending on the Sacramento, Calif., region, James, who is homeless and suffers from asthma, is in pain.

"I can't breathe, I can't talk, my throat hurts," James, 52, said, sitting in her tent in an encampment near Discovery Park, stopping to cough mid-sentence. "Every time it gets smoky it's like this, every time."

Amid a stretch of poor air quality, Sacramento County is not planning to open cleaner-air centers, said spokeswoman Janna Haynes.

The city of Sacramento plans to open cleaner-air centers if the particulate matter 2.5 air quality index exceeds 251, city spokesman Tim Swanson said in an email. On Wednesday, the AQI hit a high of 152 in Sacramento, an "unhealthy" level. It was forecast to hit a high of 201, "very unhealthy," on Thursday and Friday.

The city should open cleaner-air centers every time the AQI hits 150, City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela said.

"When it comes to protecting peoples' bodies and hearts from pollution, to me that's a really easy choice to make as soon as we're able," said Valenzuela, who has asthma and was feeling symptomatic Wednesday despite being in her apartment. "This is not the first major smoke event and it's not the last. We need to take this seriously."

Valenzuela asked city staff to bring an item to the City Council for consideration to lower the AQI threshold to trigger the opening of the centers, she said, but she is unsure when that will happen.

Joe Smith, advocacy director for Loaves and Fishes, agreed with Valenzuela that the centers should open now.

"Folks living outside are already compromised, their health is always in question," Smith said. "They really don't need anything else adding to that."

Seniors and children are at increased risk of experiencing adverse health effects from wildfire smoke, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Volunteers in January 2019 found that about 1,170 people over age 50 were sleeping outdoors or in vehicles in Sacramento. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report released this year said 1,148 homeless people in families with children live in Sacramento — an increase from the previous year. Roughly half were sleeping outdoors or in vehicles.

If the city did open cleaner-air centers, James would go, as long as there was transportation offered, she said.

"I would go because I can't breathe out here," said James, who does not own a vehicle.

If the city does open centers, as it did last year, the city does not plan to offer transportation, Swanson said.

When is the air unhealthy to breathe?

Jamie Arno, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Air Quality Management District, told The Sacramento Bee that if people smell smoke, that means it's unhealthy to breathe, and they should go indoors.

A strong odor of smoke was present in the Sacramento air Wednesday. But getting indoors is a more difficult task for homeless men, women and families.

There are some places to go to escape the smoke, however.

"The City is committed to protecting the safety and well-being of all residents and is closely monitoring AQI levels in coordination with the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, the National Weather Service and Sacramento County Public Health," Swanson said in an email. "If people currently would like to be indoors, they are welcome to access various public spaces — including local libraries, government buildings (including City Hall) and malls — during normal business hours."

Twenty three libraries are currently fully open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays, said Lisa Martinez, Sacramento Public Library spokeswoman.

But many homeless encampments are not within walking distance to libraries, malls and government buildings. The city's community centers are not currently open to the general public to drop in due to the coronavirus pandemic. They are instead being used to host daily activities for people who are registered, Swanson said.

In addition, not all of the open buildings have sufficient air filtration for wildfire smoke, Valenzuela said. The buildings that would be used for the centers would all have HVAC systems that could effectively filter out the particulate matter and hazardous pollutants in the smoke, she said.

If the centers do open, they will be located at the Hagginwood Community Center in North Sacramento, the Hart Senior Center in midtown, and the George Sim Community Center in south Sacramento, as needed, Swanson said.

Volunteers in January 2019 estimated 5,570 homeless people were living in Sacramento County, about 73 percent of whom were living in the city. About 3,900 of the 5,570 were sleeping outdoors and in vehicles.

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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