For Portland area's homeless, options limited in smoke
Alan Moore says he tried to place his sleeping bag as far away from trees as possible Monday night, Sept. 7, as an unprecedented wind storm ripped through Oregon.
"I don't use a tent. I just tried to hunker down in my sleeping bag," said Moore, who is homeless and camps in western Washington County. "Dust and other things kept hitting me in the face."
The storm has created the most destructive wildfire conditions in state history as gusts blew down powerlines sparking fires in the already severely dry state.
Several active, uncontained wildfires blanketed the Portland metro region in a smoky orange haze that prompted the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on Thursday to issue an air quality advisory statewide.
The agency advised people to stay indoors as much as possible, particularly those with respiratory or heart conditions.
But for much of the Portland area's massive unhoused population, going inside isn't an option. Meanwhile, unhoused people face challenges related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Looking out across smoke-shrouded hills behind Open Door Counseling Center's day shelter in Cornelius, Moore said he wasn't too worried about the smoke. He didn't have plans to seek out an indoor shelter, where an open bed would be difficult to find anyway.
Linda Yates said she felt lucky to have an apartment in Forest Grove with air conditioning so she wouldn't have to open the windows for relief from the heat amid the smoky air.
She felt lucky because she was homeless for about three years before finding her apartment, where she's lived the last two years.
Yates woke up Thursday, saw the smoke and started to get worried.
"I have asthma really bad," she said. "And I do smoke cigarettes but I try to cut back on them. A couple days ago when it was really hot, I had some problems breathing because of the heat and because of the smoke, it was humid."
Yates, 64, lives on social security income, and much of it goes toward rent, she said. She comes to Open Door a few days a week for lunch because it allows her to save limited funds.
If the air quality worsened, Yates said it would lead to some difficult decisions — whether to continue coming to Open Door's outdoor day shelter for lunch or heed health officials' advice to stay indoors.
These days Moore tries to find work as a day laborer, but he has hopes of becoming a wildland firefighter and said he ought to get used to being outside in smoke.
Moore said he might try to find an indoor shelter if the smoke conditions worsened, but about noon Thursday, air quality index data for Cornelius showed air quality was just below the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" category.
To the east in Portland, air quality was in the "unhealthy" category much of the day.
Lorenzo Bennett, who is also homeless, took a Trimet bus to Open Door from downtown Portland, where he has been camping for months after the pandemic forced his employer to lay him off and he couldn't pay for a room he was renting in a house.
He was planning to only have lunch and stay at Open Door for the day before heading back to Portland where he's more familiar with places to sleep. But he said he would start to monitor the smoke conditions and would consider sleeping somewhere less smoky if he could.
"It's kinda scary just looking up and seeing the smoke," Bennett said. "I hope they get it under control, I really haven't been paying much attention until it got worse. Today is the first day where the sun has been blacked out."
Bennett said the toll from multiple crises, including the pandemic and protests against racial justice, has been hard, and the wildfires are just another thing to stress out about.
After losing his housing, Bennett, 34, who had battled addiction for years before getting sober for two years, started using again recently, he said.
"It's a lot," Bennett said.
He said he had some leads on a new job in a warehouse and was getting help being connected to support services for addiction and depression. He hoped to find a way to access a physician who could help him receive medication for depression, Bennett said.
"There's someone up above that's always helping me find a way," Bennett said. "It could be a lot worse, you know, so I just try to take it one day at a time."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.