Asia Ford, wearing a black cloth mask, sits outside an encampment on Harrison Street.
Asia Ford, an unhoused Berkeley resident who lives outside on Harrison Street, adjusts his cloth mask as he waits for his friend to pick him up for work on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Ford had to go to a clinic after using his inhaler four times earlier in the week, as the wildfire smoke triggered his asthma. Credit: Iris Kwok

When smoke from wildfires burning at the Oregon-California border drifted into Berkeley last week, Jordyn Milton — who has been living in a green tent near the Berkeley-Albany border for two months — stopped breathing out of her nose and struggled to sleep.


“There’s a lot of places for people to go to and relax during the day, but not at nighttime,” she said. “I was coughing quite a lot … [and] my lungs and throat were hurting really bad.”

Asia Ford, an unhoused Berkeley resident with respiratory issues now living on Harrison Street, said he used his inhaler four times Tuesday  — the maximum dosage allowed for a 24-hour period — before calling in sick to work to receive respiratory treatment at LifeLong clinic on Wednesday. 

“I couldn’t open my chest up,” Ford said, describing the feeling as “being crushed.”

“The respiratory ailments are off the charts right now,” Paul Kealoha Blake, who runs Consider the Homeless and is on the city’s homeless commission, said Thursday.

After the smoke rolled in last Tuesday, the air quality index in Berkeley stayed above 100 for days, mostly staying in the orange zone (unhealthy for sensitive groups, including children, elderly people, and anyone with respiratory illnesses) but — according to many unofficial sensors — intermittently rising above 150 into the red zone, in which the air is unhealthy for the general population and everyone is advised to limit their time outdoors.   

Wildfire smoke, which contains particulate matter that bypasses the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, is particularly harmful for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, which more common among unhoused people. 

Health risks are elevated for people regularly exposed to ambient air pollution and to vehicle exhaust from sheltering under highways and near roadways. In addition to respiratory conditions, short-term exposure to wildfire smoke has also been linked to cardiovascular effects such as heart failure, heart attack, stroke, and increased risk of premature death, according to the EPA

Unhoused people spend the afternoon at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on Thursday amidst the poor air conditions caused by wildfire smoke coming in from northern California. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
A view of the Berkeley Hills, obscured by smoke, as seen from the corner of Alcatraz and Shattuck avenues on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The average life expectancy for homeless people in Alameda County is 25 years less than the general population, with a range of negative health outcomes for those who are both sheltered and unsheltered, according to the 2021 homeless mortality report. Chronic health issues are the leading cause of death among homeless people in the county, according to the report. 

There were more than 800 people considered “unsheltered” in Berkeley, according to the 2022 point-in-time count.

During last week’s smoky days, the Berkeley Air Quality Management District officials urged residents — especially children, elderly persons, and those with respiratory illnesses — to stay indoors and close windows and doors. 

The city recommended that homeless people living outside head to a library or senior center, which are open only during daytime hours.

The city uses Alameda County’s “coordinated entry” system to place people into housing, and emergency services are mainly organized through the “211” system. Little emergency housing is available on a drop-in basis, especially in the evening, but the city is focusing its efforts on offering temporary housing to unsheltered people living in high-risk areas, according to Berkeley’s homeless response team. This includes hotel beds at Project Roomkey and Homekey sites, and supportive housing locations like the Hope Center. 

The city has one official 24-hour clean air shelter, in the Maudelle Shirek Building (Old City Hall). But the shelter wasn’t open last week because the AQI didn’t top 150, Lisa Warhuus, the city’s health director, wrote in an email.

The Bay Area Air Quality District’s official monitoring station at Aquatic Park was vandalized in October 2021. Credit: BAAQMD

Berkeley’s only official monitor — run by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in Aquatic Park — started malfunctioning in April and has been completely offline since June due to a wiring issue after having been offline previously from October 2021 to December 2022 because of vandalism. “ Since the station was down for an extended period of time, it needs to go through station calibrations and audits to be put back online,” BAAQMD spokesperson Aaron Richardson said. It’s expected to be restored in the next few months. 

The city has not yet answered a question about which monitors it used last week to determine air quality. The Berkeley school district used the Oakland monitors in activating its air quality index response plan.

The Oakland West monitor, the closest to Berkeley, registered several hourly readings above 150 last week but the daily average didn’t rise above the orange zone, meaning the air was significantly better than in September 2020, when the AQI in Berkeley and Oakland stayed in the red zone for five straight days, including one day in the purple zone (very unhealthy for all).

The former Berkeley Unified School District office at the old Civic Center is now an emergency storm shelter for unhoused people during the winter, and the city’s clean air shelter on days when the AQI exceeds 150. It was closed last week. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Whether or not the clean air shelter was opened last week might not have made a large difference. In the past the city has generally seen little to no turnout when the city has activated its clean air and cooling center. Some homeless residents have said the trek isn’t worth it — especially if it means leaving behind your belongings unattended. 

Blake said some people avoid the senior centers during bad air days because of hostility they’ve been met with in the past. 

“Traveling to a library or senior center for a few hours of respite isn’t always feasible for unhoused residents, many who are elderly and have health and mobility issues,” Blake said. “It’s a tough existence of survival.” 

Berkeleyside housing and homelessness reporter Supriya Yelimeli contributed reporting to this story.

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...