California’s wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres of land this year alone. That’s more than 130 times larger than the city of San Francisco and nearly 4% of the entire state. As a result, more than 17 million Californians have been exposed to very unhealthy or hazardous air quality. News stations, public health announcements and government officials have all urged residents to “stay inside” and “keep your windows closed,” a seemingly simple solution that proves impossible for the more than 150,000 homeless Californians who don’t have a house to stay in or a window to close.
An important measure Alameda County residents will find on their ballots this election season is Measure W. If passed, it will raise approximately $150 million for county services, in part aiming to provide housing and other services for unhoused people.
As graduate students in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Northern California residents, we are concerned about unhoused folks in our local community. We believe everyone should have the ability to protect themselves from dangerous air conditions — an issue that is only going to get worse as fires continue to spread.
One compounding and alarming issue contributing to homelessness in the United States is our country’s eviction crisis. When the current pandemic eviction protections are lifted, nearly 1 million Californians will be at risk of losing their homes. That is 1 million more people who may be unable to protect themselves from the alarming air conditions sweeping across the state.
According to UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, 1 in 7 renter households includes someone who lost their job in connection to COVID-19; nearly half of those renter households are families with children. UCLA law professor Gary Blasi likened the surge in evictions to a human-made version of a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, putting thousands on the streets without a home to return to.
It’s hard to imagine the severity of something that we can’t see or touch, but the microscopic particulate matter circulating through the air is deceivingly dangerous — and its effects are hard to ignore.
The Environmental Protection Agency warns that the fine particles in the air can cause a variety of health issues, including burning eyes, worsening asthma and the exacerbation of chronic heart and lung illnesses. A recent study found that wildfire smoke can trigger immediate negative health effects, even within as little as one hour of exposure.
Monica Steptoe, associate director of San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Services, reported to Mother Jones that the youths in Larkin Street’s shelter for those ages 18 to 24 have complained of tight chests, difficulty breathing and burning eyes.
In 2019, the city of Berkeley estimated nearly 2,000 people were experiencing homelessness, a number that will likely increase drastically when eviction protections are lifted. The city seems to be already struggling to find housing for its current homeless population and appears unequipped to support the growing number of people who would become unhoused.
Today, we are all at risk of losing our jobs and homes. Ignoring this issue is like throwing your neighbor, friend or family member out on the street, locking the door and closing the blinds. In Alameda County, 82% of those now facing homelessness were once residents. We can’t turn our backs on our neighbors anymore. We must take action to ensure our city is able to provide for the most vulnerable.
While beneficial in many ways, Measure W isn’t without its flaws. Those who oppose the measure worry about its allocation of funds. As a general sales tax, the money would go toward Alameda County’s general fund; the language of the measure does not specify where the funds would be allocated. However, the measure does establish a citizen oversight committee that would review and report the use of funds every year.
In addition, Alameda County’s Home Together 2020 plan outlines promising programs that funds generated by Measure W could potentially go toward supporting. These include several important initiatives that could prevent more renters from becoming unhoused, such as rapid rehousing and ongoing rental subsidies. Initiatives such as expanding emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing could help support many unhoused people.
The method through which the funds would be generated by Measure W is another point of concern. The sales tax is regressive and would impact low-income populations the most. However, once the measure is passed, provisions such as imposing a rebate for low-income households could help offset the increased tax for vulnerable populations.
While Measure W isn’t perfect, it’s an important step forward for Alameda County. The benefits and support Measure W would provide unhoused residents far outweigh the costs of doing nothing at all. To help support your neighbors, vote “yes” on Measure W this election.