Since last week, as air quality veered into “very unhealthy” range, much of the Bay Area has been advised to stay indoors — or, at the very least, use N95 masks. But what do you do if you’re low-income or don’t have an indoors to go to?
Not waiting for an answer to the question, a coalition of activists has begun to distribute N95 masks to people who need them, whether they simply couldn’t find any in stock at their local hardware store or they’re unhoused and spend much of the day outdoors. From Friday to Sunday, the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America handed out 2,800 masks, with another 3,700 to disperse throughout Thanksgiving week, according to organizer Dale Smith.
At first, money came from the group’s membership, then through donations. With the help of the Coalition on Homelessness, they went on foot through the Mission, the Tenderloin, and Bayview to hand out masks to individuals they encountered and to organizations like Homeless Youth Alliance.
“I’m pretty sure [the city] knows what they need to be doing,” Smith says. “They just haven’t stepped up at all.”
As of Monday, the Homeless Outreach Team distributed more than 1,600 N95 masks and 700 bottles of water. Organizations like Larkin Street Youth Services and St. James Infirmary, which connect with vulnerable populations, said they didn’t receive any masks or outreach from the city, but that they would have appreciated a call as they gave out limited amounts.
The Department of Homelessness also added 75 mats to the shelter system on Nov. 15 and three days later, the opening of the winter shelters meant another 60 beds.
But activists tabling with N95 masks and briefly rallying on the steps of City Hall on Monday insisted that it was not enough to help the nearly 8,000 San Franciscans who the 2017 point-in-time count classified as homeless.
“It’s detrimental to their health,” says Sam Lew of the Coalition on Homelessness. “We should be able to provide adequate resources in the city.”
Echoing a Bay Resistance petition, the coalition called on Bay Area mayors to provide masks for everyone who needs one, have air-filtered public spaces available day and night, and expand shelter service by making them low-barrier. Those not on the reservation waitlist must also contend with waiting outside for hours, finding shelters that keep families together, and leaving their pets or partners behind.
They also demanded that state leaders, including Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, stand up to the oil industry for its role in “climate-linked fires” and to practice indigenous forest management like controlled burns to prevent devastating fires.
The demand for a climate-crisis plan isn’t just to ensure the most vulnerable people are covered. It’s to guarantee that the larger public is better informed about the health effects of poor air quality, which — aside from lung discomfort — isn’t immediate. Not everyone has signed up for the advisories the Department of Public Health issues on social media.
Even after two weeks of dangerous conditions, not everyone knows that surgical masks and bandanas aren’t effective, or that they should make sure air conditioners recycle indoor air. Nor is it universally understood that N95 masks — when properly fitted — are good until they are appear damaged, soiled, or become difficult to breathe in. DSA even made an infographic, complete with how to build an air purifier for roughly $20.
Sadly, knowledge like this will likely be needed year after year — and the more people are armed with it, the better. City government, activists say, must play a role in alerting and supplying everyone.
“Obviously, we’re on the brink of climate catastrophe on a global scale,” Smith says. “This should be a wake-up call.”
UPDATE, Tuesday 1:30 p.m.: Supervisor Hillary Ronen, San Francisco’s representative to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, announced Tuesday morning that she would “work to enact policy” related to the public health effects of unhealthy air.
Ronen seeks to have a supply a sufficient supply of N95 masks of all sizes that will all libraries and schools will have on hand while developing plans to add filtration systems to schools. Notably, she wants to speed up plans for the city to build its own clean energy grid to transition away from PG&E. Voters in June paved the way for such plans by passing Proposition A.
“What we’ve discovered is that our current emergency systems are inadequate to handle the dangers of unbreathable air,” Ronen says in a statement. “Even if the next fire is years away we need to be prepared and ready when an air quality emergency strikes, just like we are for flooding and earthquakes.”