Smoke And Ashes

Posted: July 2, 2008 in Children, Compassion, Health, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing

For Californians, wildfires are a fact of life.

If you haven’t already heard, at present there are over 1,400 wildfires burning in Northern California.

These fires began a little over a week ago as a result of a freak lightening storm.  

A news article from The Associated Press, New evacuations ordered as California battles blazes, mentioned that yesterday morning about 200 people were being ordered to leave the area of Big Sur. The article went on to say that the fire in that area had continued to grow and that it was only about 3 percent contained.

An article from Salem-News.com, Fires Flare as Smoke Spreads From California Wildfires to Oregon and Nevada, stated,

"The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports that over 1,450 fires in California have scorched more than 416,200 acres as of early this morning.

Red Bluff, California, Reno, Nevada and Medford, Oregon, all reported lowered visibility due to the smoke being spread by a south-southwest steering flow on Monday. The smoke will continue to cause poor air quality and poor breathing conditions, even for healthy adults, through the week."

On the SLO Tribune website, a breaking news article, Excessive smoke leads to health advisory in SLO County, said,

"The increased amounts of smoke and ash are expected to impact the county through at least Wednesday. Coastal fog has made the smoky conditions worse since it keeps the smoke lower to the ground, according to the district.

Residents are urged to reduce outdoor activities and exercise. It’s especially recommended for the elderly, and those with respiratory and heart conditions and allergies."

In SLO County last night, there were over 2000 men, women and children who did not have the option of having a sheltered place to sleep. They were forced to sleep out in the open; in a tent; in their vehicles; or anywhere else they could find.

They are part of SLO County’s homeless population.

Because of a lack of available shelter beds, these folks were exposed to extremely unhealthy air conditions. Some of them already have health issues. Breathing the smoke from the fires can only serve to worsen those conditions.

It isn’t that they chose to sleep out of doors. With a total of 2,408 persons who have been positively identified as being homeless in SLO County, and only about 175 available shelter beds countywide, you can see that these folks were not left with any other viable option.

I know one homeless senior citizen who has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). Although he is taking prescribed medications for the condition, he nonetheless has problems breathing normally. He doesn’t have access to shelter. He lives in his vehicle – which probably did little to protect him from the unhealthy air quality.

I can’t imagine that the smoke from the wildfires was any good for the lungs of the county’s homeless children either. Quite a number of these children – the majority of them, in fact – were subjected to breathing that smoke and ash because they, and their parents, did not have access to shelter.

I’m not a medical professional, so I can’t give any proof positive opinion as to what type long term effects breathing the smoke and ash will have on any of the county’s homeless. But, I don’t think it will be beneficial in the long run. On the contrary, if I were to make an educated guess, I would say that it will have some ill effects on these folks somewhere down the line – all of which might have been preventable if we, as a community, had been more willing to fund the providing of an adequate number of shelter beds for our area’s homeless.

It’s easy to say something to the effect that the homeless should just get off of their lazy behinds and make something of themselves; that they should take responsibility for their lives; or that they should just go out and get jobs and stop "sponging" off of the rest of us.

The reality however, is that there are quite a number of our area’s homeless who do have employment. But, they’re not earning a livable wage. Additionally, the number of affordable, low-income housing units isn’t large enough to accommodate the numbers of persons who need it.

California doesn’t have the ability to prevent wildfires. No one does. Wildfires are "an act of God." They are going to happen whether we want them to or not.

In a similar fashion, homelessness isn’t something which can be altogether prevented either. Despite our best efforts, it too, is going to occur whether we want it to or not.

What we do have the power to do, however, is create the potential for our homeless to find a way back into the mainstream of the community. We have the ability to open up our minds and hearts to sufferings of others. We have the capacity to let compassion motivate us to reach out a helping hand.

Last night, in SLO County, there was ash and smoke in the air – and some of our fellow human beings were not be able to escape breathing it.

We have an obligation to do the right thing.

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Comments
  1. AnAmerican says:

    Yes indeed…we do have an obligation to offer a helping had to those who are homeless ESPECIALLY when the conditions of remaining in a potentially hazardous situation might have ill effects on their health. Much like when we face natural disaters such as floods or hurricanes, communities need to have an emergency plan . Opening schools, stadiums or other facilities to offer folks an barrier from the bad air would have been the right thing to do.

  2. papahere says:

    Michael…one important reason for the neglect of the homeless is the fear of making a locality seen as desirable place for the homeless attracting many who choose an area based on the reputation of their treatment of homeless…many communities feel trapped because of a need to protect them self from being considered desirable for homeless…this problem could be relieved somewhat if the federal government provided funding for the care of homeless so local communities would not be required to pay these cost. ~Papa

  3. michael says:

    AnAmerican –
    I agree with you that in such an instance, finding a “place” where the homeless might have been able to avoid exposure to the smoke and ash would have been the right thing to do – unfortunately, because of the many stereotypes associated with homelessness, the community seldom does what’s right.

    Papa –
    You hit on the key word: fear.

    The “fear” is that by providing better homeless support services, a community will attract additional homeless. However, this fear is based on misconceptions – as are so many things with regards to homelessness.

    Studies have already proven that expanding homeless support services does not attract additional homeless. The overwhelming majority of homeless remain in the exact same geographical location where they became homeless and generally do not “travel” elsewhere in search of better homeless services.

    Although the federal government does provide funding to local communities for homeless support services, the amounts are inadequate to the task. For this fiscal year, the federal government will only spend about $50 per homeless person. Next year, a proposed budget cut will reduce that amount to less than $35 per homeless person.

  4. Evelyn Adams says:

    Michael,

    My own living conditions in SLO County recently prompted me to look at how I’ve become complacent to the everyday nightmare of our homeless citizens. I don’t use the word “our” lightly.

    That said, I had a “smacked me in the face” opportunity to invite into my home a new house guest. A woman who was homeless. She was referred to my program as a potential resource person. I’ve invited her to stay with me until she finds permanent housing. We are (I think) having an enriching experience, I am anyway. I have company and it makes me feel good each hour to know she is safe and has a running chance at getting housing soon without suffering something irreparable. She’s HUD qualified, a remarkable woman who’s suffered a string of events that led to her homelessness as a consequence. It’s “tighter” in here but she’s my guest and now friend.

    How much room do others have, IF they really want to make an immediate difference in at least one persons life? Here’s hoping folks can put aside fear and yes, risk to take positive steps — AND as we learn to stretch our lives and pockets, beginning to walk-the-walk, so little can make such a big difference to one person at a time’s homelessness.

    Thanks, Michael again for your wonderful forum here.

  5. papahere says:

    Michael…In an attempt to understand what the Internet offers as resources for the homeless I came across a website for the Sonoma County Task force for the Homeless

    http://www.sonomacountyhomeless.org/index.php

    There appears a need for both local and federal group and advocacy action. It is impressive and wondered if a similar website is available in SLO or can it be developed?…I also wondered if a social network exclusively for the homeless could be a possibility ? ~ Papa

  6. michael says:

    Papa –

    There is indeed a need for local and federal government action – but, in my opinion it can only be effective if everyone works in concert with one another.

    In answer to your question about the availability of a social network for the homeless… while it is techinically possible, most homeless have limited access to the technology, some have limited knowledge regarding how to use it.

    I am currently exploring the possibility of implementing a website that could serve as both a “group” repository of every form of information, statitistics; studies; data; and resources available for the homeless nationwide. The site would also include “public forums” for the sharing of possible ways of helping find solutions to help the homeless transition back into their respective communities.

    – m –

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