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Few take respite in smoke shelter amid unhealthy Seattle air quality

Oct. 20, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 20, 2022 at 9:53 p.m.

Seattle ranked as the worst city worldwide for air quality and pollution at one point Wednesday afternoon, according to IQAir.   (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times)
Seattle ranked as the worst city worldwide for air quality and pollution at one point Wednesday afternoon, according to IQAir.  (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times)
By Anna Patrick Seattle Times

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority opened a smoke shelter Tuesday to provide relief to people living outside from the unhealthy air that’s blanketed the region, but few people so far have taken the respite.

The agency has opened emergency smoke shelters five times since Sept. 11 amid a stretch of diminished air quality due to Washington wildfires. Seattle ranked as the worst city worldwide for air quality and pollution at one point Wednesday afternoon, according to IQAir, a Swiss air-quality technology company that also operates a real-time air-quality information platform.

“Climate change is real,” said Anne Martens, spokesperson for the Regional Homelessness Authority, “and we can expect that severe weather events will continue to accelerate.”

The Seattle Times interviewed a dozen people who live outside or in shelters Wednesday when air quality hovered in the unhealthy range from 151 to 200. Most said the smoke is only a small nuisance compared to other challenges they’re facing.

Some said they were feeling physical symptoms, like burning eyes or feeling tired and groggy. All were staying put rather than going to the smoke shelter, operated by Compass Housing Alliance at 77 S. Washington St. in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.

The site is open to adults overnight and is providing free meals. It was originally scheduled to close Thursday but will now remain open until Friday morning.

Thirteen people stayed in the shelter Tuesday night. A total of 22 stayed there when it was open Friday through Monday morning.

The space can hold up to 60 people and resembles a more traditional sense of congregate shelter with mats on the floor and no place to store belongings.

“Given that, it’s understandable that people may not want to pack up all their stuff for a short-term congregate setting,” Martens said.

Josh Garcia, an outreach care coordinator for REACH in North Seattle, said he’s talked to people living outside during severe weather events who are hesitant to leave their things and travel to emergency shelters that often open with little notice.

Since the authority took over the county’s emergency weather response at the beginning of 2022, Martens said emergency shelters have rarely reached capacity and that many people often shelter in place.

That’s particularly been the case with worsened air quality.

Garcia compared it to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If someone needs food, water or a safe place to live, worsening air quality isn’t going to be top of mind.

“The long-term effects of breathing in smoke is not going to be like the most highest of priority,” he said.

Ramon Salmeron, who lives in a pickup near a previous employer in Sodo, is part of that crowd.

He’s had to stop repairing car windows and installing windshields, and later working on his feet at Goodwill, because of severe sciatic nerve pain in his right leg.

And while he’s noticed the smoke in recent weeks, he said, “This is nothing.”

Unseasonably warm and dry conditions that have created a hotbed for Washington wildfires this fall have prompted homelessness leaders to reflect on the intersection of homelessness, public health and climate change, Martens said.

“This is an example of how the issues facing our communities are becoming more intertwined: The air we breathe has become a public health issue, and the people forced into homelessness, who are already vulnerable, are made even more vulnerable by massive environmental factors over which they have no control,” she said.

Unlike snowstorms or below-freezing temperatures that can quickly lead to exposure and sometimes death, extended periods of poor air quality can bring on a variety of health problems and worsen pre-existing conditions.

But good news is on the horizon: Forecasters predict Puget Sound will see its first substantial rain in months Friday, improving air quality throughout the region.

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