'Hard to breathe': No escape from smoke for Portland homeless
It's the not knowing that is getting to people. When will the smoke end?
Smoke smells blew into Portland for a few days two years ago when the Eagle Creek fire burned near Multnomah Falls, but it was nothing like this. This year's wildfires left Portland blanketed with a yellow smog that smelled more a bonfire with top notes of dumpster fire — man made materials, not just God's green earth going up.
For days it dragged on, the weak sun looking like a golf ball on the better days. At night the streets were deserted. Even the joggers — the only people who seem to be tolerating the pandemic — stayed inside when the air quality index hit Beijing or Mumbai levels, over 500. The streets were as quiet as if it were snowing.
Some people were outside in the smoke 24/7 for a week, however. The homeless, or houseless, those who sleep in tents and doorways, had no escape. There isn't yet a Coleman or an REI tent that can keep smoke out, and COVD-19 masks are rare in the homeless community.
The Tribune talked to a few people and asked them how it felt, living in the smoke.
Aelita Walker lives in a tent on a patch of grass where Southeast Washington Street crosses the I-205. On Wednesday, with the AQI in the 400s, Walker said the smoke is making it difficult for her to walk her usual long distances, since she prefers not to use transit.
"It's harder to breathe since the smoke began," Walker said. "It's almost like being inside of a house where you have the fireplace and the chimney's dirty."
She said she's been coughing a lot since it began almost week before. "It's a different kind of cough than normal. I'm a smoker, maybe five or six a day. It's more congested, like deeper in the lungs."
Walker grew up in Central California so she is used to wildfire smoke, although not usually for more than two days at a time.
"It's going to be rough. But you know, I'm a survivor. I was raised to improvise and overcome. I'll figure it out."
Someone, she thinks from a church, dropped off a lot of masks. "I also have a little fan that I wave around sometimes. My friend over here, he's actually got breathing issues, so it's really bad for him. He's hardly ever coming out of this tent."
Nearby, Desiree Beck was looking for her pit bull puppy, Ellie, who got out in the night. It was Ellie's third escape and Beck had made digital flier which she was showing to drivers as they stopped at the light where Southeast Washington Street crosses the I-205.
"She's very friendly and very loving, she'll come to anybody," said Beck of the dog.
Of the wildfire smoke, she said, "I can barely smell it when I'm outside. I can see it, but I can't smell it." She said she has fans inside her house just across the street.
"I'm fine. We haven't got sick because of it."
Jason Walsh lives outside in Old Town. He was near was Northwest Davis Street and Broadway, cleaning his head with baby wipes after frantically sweeping the sidewalk in an attempt to find something he'd dropped. He gave up.
"It's hard to breathe, it's so disgusting," Walsh said. "This hurts my chest. I'm OCD and I have emphysema, and it doesn't help I smoke cigarettes." Walker smokes two and a half packs of Camel 99s per day. He carries a Stanley machete in his backpack because he is fearful of out-of-towners attacking homeless people.
"The smoke makes a big, drastic difference. I can feel it in my chest and my lungs, and my lower back. I'm out of breath a lot easier," Walsh said.
He noticed the smoke got worse on Tuesday and Wednesday and improved Thursday. And what if the wildfire smoke stays around even longer?
"What can you do? Nothing. Whatever happens. I keep on going."
Kanani King, who goes by KK on the streets, has lived in Old Town, on the corner of Davis and Fourth Avenue, for at least six months. As for the smoke, it doesn't bother her.
"It's been ashy. My hair feels like when you're in a bonfire. Dirty," King said.
"It's exaggerated. All this commotion going on with the COVID and these fires, it's exaggerated. I've been out here since before the COVID, it's still going on: Did you see me sick?" she asked rhetorically. "This fire or this COVID has not affected anybody out here."
She lives in a tent on the corner with her belongings tidied into baskets around her. On Thursday afternoon she was sitting, talking to two friends, Justine Warby, who lives in a shelter, and Chief Umtuch, who is staying "in subsidy" in a hotel and was wearing an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet.
Chief Umtuch said he's the chief executive officer of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in Washington, and agreed that not only was the smoke not a problem, no one in the homeless camps was testing positive for COVID-19 because they move round too much. "The homeless here in Portland, we're too in a whirlwind of activity for the virus to settle down," Chief Umtuch said.
Warby was less skeptical of the pandemic, and affected slightly by the smoke. "We smelled it a little bit," Warby said.
"No, it's not affected us, not one bit," added King, before saying that the real problem was "protesters" who drive by and throw things at those living on the streets.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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