Officials race to protect the homeless from dangerous wildfire smoke

People walk across a busy street while a smoky sky can be seen in the background.
Heavy smoke turns the sky yellow as people walk across 42nd Street in Times Square at sunset on Tuesday in New York City. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

With poor air quality from Canada’s wildfires engulfing Northeastern cities like New York and Philadelphia, public officials are stepping up efforts to protect people experiencing homelessness from the health threat.

“In the case of this week’s air quality issues, we know that people experiencing homelessness live with high rates of chronic heart and lung issues that will be exacerbated by this environment, and that there are simply not enough spaces where they can escape the elements,” Ann Oliva, the CEO of National Alliance to End Homelessness, said in a statement emailed to Yahoo News.


A haze covers Philadelphia City Hall, caused by smoke from Canada’s wildfires.
A haze covers Philadelphia City Hall on Wednesday. (Joe Lamberti/AFP via Getty Images)

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia is experiencing its unhealthiest air quality since 2008, with the region at “code red” status on Thursday, indicating the air is unhealthy to breathe. That has left the city’s homeless population, estimated at 4,500 people, in an even more vulnerable situation.

Barry Martin, program director for St. John’s Hospice homeless shelter, told Yahoo News that Philadelphia uses “code red” for days on which the temperature rises to harmful levels, and “code blue” for days on which the cold is dangerous. “We haven’t come up with a ‘code orange’ for a bad air day. I think we’re at a point where we might need something like that,” he said.

St. John’s Hospice homeless shelter, which is part of Catholic Social Services, always provides water to those in need, Martin said. Since the smoke has descended over Philadelphia, it has also provided masks upon request. The shelter says it usually serves about 225 meals a day, but it saw its numbers drop down to about 145, which means the air quality has probably kept unhoused people in place. While the smoky conditions are expected to dissipate over the coming days, air quality has become just one challenge to those who find themselves homeless, Martin said.

Homeless Philadelphians are seen under an overpass.
Homeless Philadelphians under an overpass in 2020. (Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“They’ve got COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], asthma, diabetes. Diabetes can be affected by your inability to get somewhere to eat or whatever because of the smoke and all that inhalation. It just complicates all the predisposing diagnoses that homeless people might have,” he said.

In Philadelphia’s metro area, unsafe air quality has spurred nearby towns like Norristown to set up emergency shelters at local churches and hotels, and community centers are also distributing masks and water to people who are unhoused.

New York

A red sun rises in a dark smoky sky.
The sun is shrouded as it rises in a smoky sky behind the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and One Vanderbilt in New York City on Thursday, as seen from Jersey City, N.J. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Due in part to an influx of migrants who have crossed into the United States over the border with Mexico, New York City has struggled to find beds to accommodate an estimated population of 70,000 unhoused people at a time when air quality has plummeted.

“There are many things that need to happen and happen swiftly to make sure we’re keeping New Yorkers safe. There should be clean air centers set up all throughout the five boroughs so that people who may have compromised air quality in their homes or people who are unhoused have safe, reliable places to go where they can stay safe right now,” New York City Councilman Lincoln Rester told NewsBreak.

City officials have deployed outreach teams from the Department of Social Services and the Department of Homeless Services across the boroughs to connect with and assist unhoused residents in finding drop-in centers, shelters and low-barrier programs.

Washington, D.C.

The Washington Memorial stands in hazy smoke.
The Washington Memorial stands in hazy smoke on Thursday in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Washington’s air quality has prompted officials to issue a “code purple” air quality alert. The alert indicates “very unhealthy air conditions.” The nation’s capital has a shelter hotline that people experiencing homelessness can use to request transportation to a shelter.

“Low-barrier shelters remain open 24 hours and are ready to receive residents who need relief from poor outdoor air quality. District and partner agency outreach teams are informing unsheltered residents to seek relief from poor outdoor air quality in shelters and service centers,” Washington’s Department of Human Services said in a statement sent to Yahoo News.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness is urging officials to act to protect those who face the “greatest risk” from weather-related emergencies, saying emergency shelters and increased housing development should be funded year-round.

“This is not an episodic risk,” Oliva stated. “Homelessness is a crisis 365 days a year, yet our nation fails to scale and resource homeless and housing systems to their needs. Until we do so, people experiencing homelessness will continue to needlessly suffer during crises like we are experiencing this week.”