Homeless populations vulnerable amid poor air quality and smoke: Advocates
Advocates urge action for housing amid poor air quality in the Northeast.
As the Northeast became enveloped in dangerous fumes from the Canadian wildfires, warnings to residents about the potential health impacts of breathing in such acrid air included wearing a mask and staying indoors.
But when officials began to sound the alarm, not all residents had the luxury to stay indoors or at home. Some, in fact, had no place to turn.
Homeless populations remain vulnerable to the impacts of climate crises, facing the brunt of environmental disasters with little protection.
"When you have no home, no shelter, no money, no access to a safe indoor place, there is nowhere to go and it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone in our communities," said Jeff Olivet, the director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
New York's air deteriorated into the worst air quality of any city on Earth on Tuesday. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that quality face masks would begin to be distributed in public spaces across the state.
By Wednesday afternoon, the city's Air Quality Index had hit 484 out of 500, the highest level on record, Adams said in a Wednesday night press conference. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous, according to the city's Office of Emergency Management.
Every minute that New Yorkers are exposed to that toxic air does more harm, environmental experts say.
In 2022, New York City alone estimated that 3,439 homeless people were residing in public spaces with more than 67,000 other homeless children and adults living in shelters managed by the city's Department of Homeless Services.
Advocates say unhoused populations or people who have unstable housing may be more likely to be exposed to environmental elements and have little income to go toward impact mitigation efforts, which can be costly.
Homelessness is connected to worse health conditions, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council -- and when faced with extreme climate conditions, those health conditions are exacerbated.
Inhaling toxic smoke and ash from wildfires could weaken the immune system and cause damage to the body, including the lungs and heart, for anyone regardless of their health status.
"As the climate gets worse and being exposed to the elements becomes a more and more serious proposition -- [housing is] not just health care, it's life saving," said Dave Giffen, the executive director of the homelessness advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless.
Other harmful impacts of climate crises on the homeless can be seen in the hundreds of homeless deaths each year from extreme heat and extreme cold.
With climate change impacting not just the temperature, but also natural disasters and environmental crises nationwide, the threat of death or other health impacts are worsening, advocates say.
Not only does climate change harm already unhoused populations, but it can drive homelessness. Advocates urge city officials to remember the importance of housing and homelessness as it intersects with issues of public health and climate change.
People have also been massively displaced by wildfires, hurricanes and other large scale climate events, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
"If we're not going to solve the underlying housing crisis that is the cause for the mass homelessness crisis, we're going to see many more people feeling the brunt of the effect of the climate crisis in ways that I don't think any of us want to see," Giffen said.