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California Fires and the Homeless

Lisa Cooper got three of the masks that were being handed out by the city, because she was having trouble breathing. But then she fell asleep on the street after being awake for nearly four days, she said, and all three masks had been stolen. On Monday evening, she was on her way to a shelter, but said her spot was only guaranteed for one night—she has addiction issues and some of the shelters are strict about drug use. She is worried for her health if she stays on the streets. “Right now, it’s hard to exhale and inhale fully,” she said.

Smoke from wildfires is dense with tiny, toxic irritants that scientists call particulate matter. It’s a catchall term that refers to any microscopic bit of material released by a fire: a mote of dust, a flake of ash, an unburned shred of wood, or a droplet of sulfuric acid. A messy, incomplete, uncontrollable wildfire can spew any of these things—each many times thinner than a human hair—into the atmosphere.

And when there’s more particulate matter in the air, more people die. It seeps into the tissue of the lungs and heart, triggering heart attacks and aggravating asthma. The closer scientists look, the more harm particulate matter seems to cause: A study published this summer found that particulate matter so inflames the body that it can cause diabetes. More than 150,000 cases of diabetes in the United States are directly attributable to particulate matter, scientists now argue.

“I think everyone would agree that the particulate matter is by far the largest public-health threat [from wildfires] from an air-quality perspective,” said Greg Huey, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

There’s reason to believe there are going to be more wildfires in coming years, and cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco that are experiencing high levels of homelessness also happen to be in regions more vulnerable to wildfires. There are currently more than 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, a 36 percent increase from 2010. There are 7,500 homeless people in San Francisco, a 16 percent increase from 2011.

Fires can contribute to homelessness, too. As thousands of homes are destroyed in their path, more people have to look for somewhere to live, battling one another in the Bay Area’s vicious real-estate market. Real-estate agents last year told renters after the fires in Sonoma and Santa Rosa that they were going to have to pay higher rents because of the additional renters on the market.

It’s possible that the terrible air quality will spur cities in California to more effectively address their homelessness problems. Cities on the East Coast, after all, have had to figure out how to house people during blizzards, snowstorms, and periods of extreme cold. California cities, with their year-round balmy weather, have not had to worry that failing to house all of their residents could lead to people dying on the streets. That was then, but this new normal of uncontrollable wildfires in California is raising the already high risks of living on the streets.

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Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Robinson Meyer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers climate change and technology.

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