‘Lack of political will’: Berkeley community frustrated over city’s slow relief efforts for homeless amid poor air quality

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Amanda Ramirez/Senior Staff

Update 11/19/18: This article has been updated to reflect additional information from city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Sitting in the smoke-filled air beside several tightly shut tents Friday morning, Stacey Hill — a resident of the South Berkeley “Here There” homeless encampment — pointed to a small pile of masks.

The masks, Hill said, arrived at the encampment soon after the deadly Camp Fire that broke out in Butte County less than two weeks ago shrouded the Bay Area in polluted air. The people who delivered the masks were not commissioned by the city of Berkeley — they were community members acting on their own initiative.

“The people that have come by here are all residents,” Hill said. “The neighbors are making sure we’re being taken care of. The city isn’t doing anything.”

Air-quality monitoring system PurpleAir ranked air quality in Northern California the worst in the world last week, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District indicated a “very unhealthy” air quality index above 200 in Berkeley. City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said that in response to these conditions, the city is standing behind city health officer Lisa Hernandez’s recommendations for all residents: Stay indoors as much as possible.

AMANDA RAMIREZ/SENIOR STAFF

AMANDA RAMIREZ/SENIOR STAFF

The city’s official stance, as stated in Hernandez’s recommendations, is that masks are not a substitute for staying indoors. As a result, the city has refrained from spearheading mask-distribution programs, like the one adopted by the city of Sacramento in which masks were handed out for free at Sacramento Fire Department stations.

But for many homeless individuals — including Hill and other “Here There” encampment residents — remaining indoors is not a realistic solution. Though Chakko said city officials are “encouraging” homeless individuals to use indoor facilities such as libraries and homeless shelters, homeless activist Guy “Mike” Lee said such facilities provide for only a fraction of the city’s homeless population.

According to The Village — an advocacy group that provides food, provisions and temporary housing for Oakland’s curbside communities — there are at least 6,000 unsheltered people in Alameda County and only about 1,600 emergency shelter beds available on an average night.

Chakko said the city’s homeless outreach team is working with homeless individuals to tell them where they can go to find relief from the smoke, adding that the city converted the North Berkeley Senior Center into an emergency shelter on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. According to Chakko, city staff were sent throughout the city Friday, when the air quality index exceeded 200, to inform homeless residents about the locations of both daytime and nighttime shelters.

These city efforts come over one week after the Camp Fire was first ignited.

“The truth is, there’s not enough shelter for all the homeless in an emergency situation,” said Mike Zint, co-founder of the homeless advocacy group First They Came for the Homeless. “It comes right down to those that are least able to get to a shelter … will suffer the most.”

In light of the lack of sufficient shelter space and widespread government-funded mask dissemination, some UC Berkeley students have taken it upon themselves to provide aid to people unable to escape the unhealthy air.

Campus juniors Maya Chan and Gisela Tarifa mobilized a handful of members of the Students of Color Environmental Collective, or SCEC, to raise funds through social media channels, donating money to the grassroots organization Mask Oakland. The students then partnered with the nonprofit to hand out about 1,500 masks in Berkeley and Oakland last week.

Chan said the Berkeley community has taken the lead in addressing the impact of poor air quality on the city’s homeless population because of “radio silence” from the local government. She expressed concern that the city’s official advice — to “limit time outside,” according to Hernandez — overlooks barriers to finding indoor shelter that stand before a large portion of Berkeley’s homeless community.

Mask Oakland co-founder Cassandra Williams agreed, stating that there is “inherent classism” in telling people to remain indoors.

“This message is telling them that you don’t deserve to be able to breathe air — you don’t deserve to be alive,” Chan said. “These actions are lining up with a picture of who they prioritize. Clearly, the homeless people of Berkeley are not on that agenda — they’re not who they think matters.”

Campus junior and undergraduate student instructor Sylvia Targ participated in the SCEC mask-distribution effort last weekend and said students handed out masks from afternoon until night. Targ echoed Chan’s sentiment: Community-based action is attempting to fill the the void created by “institutional failures.”

Considering the role UC Berkeley students play in gentrifying the city, Tarifa said students have a responsibility to take care of their neighbors and give back to individuals who have been displaced as a result of gentrification.

Beyond the SCEC, other campus students have also expressed concern about homeless individuals’ exposure to unhealthy air. Campus junior Gabby Shvartsman and a few friends created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase about 200 masks for the homeless — donations exceeded their initial $500 goal within hours. About 30 student volunteers distributed masks at homeless encampments and parks throughout the city Thursday night.

“We didn’t think we would achieve our goal so quickly and mobilize that fast,” Shvartsman said. “It was really a pleasant surprise.”

Mask Oakland co-founders Williams and J. Redwoods pointed to the Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless Program as one county office that is attempting to address the issue. Williams said that while Alameda County has been largely unresponsive, Mask Oakland has collaborated with its homeless program to distribute masks to those who have no indoor shelter t0 which to turn.

David Modersbach, director of the Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless Program, said his office is undertaking a three-pronged approach: identifying those who are medically frail, spreading the word about existing indoor shelters and distributing N95 masks.

Despite some county and city efforts, Lee emphasized the potential for the city of Berkeley to take concrete steps toward increasing shelter space. He cited Old City Hall, the Berkeley Unified School District gym and the third floor of the Veterans Memorial Building as locations that could be converted into shelters as long as the air in Berkeley remains unhealthy.

“Berkeley should be asking, ‘What can we do right now, and can we do more?’ ” Lee said. “There’s a real lack of political will and political leadership.”

Jake Atkinson, a “Here There” encampment resident, said he has not seen any city officials or staffers come by the encampment to provide resources or information about the fires.

On Thursday evening, Chakko said the city was still “examining all available options.” As city officials continue to consider their response to the pollution and its impact on Berkeley’s most vulnerable populations, residents of the “Here There” encampment remain exposed to toxic air.

“We’re in a natural disaster, and they’re treating it like nothing’s happening,” Hill said. “We’re totally being ignored.”

Danielle Kaye is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.