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Wildfire smoke poses extra risk for people experiencing homelessness

 A hazy gray sky hangs over layers of forest
Jenn Jarecki
Vermont Public
Wildfire smoke haze mixed with lingering effects of a storm make the sky gray in Monkton on June 25, 2023.

At various times in the past month Vermonters have woken up to orange, smoky skies due to heavy smoke from wildfires in Canada.

And that traveling smoke doesn't just cause an eerie glow. It also creates unhealthy air quality that affects all sorts of Vermonters, including vulnerable populations experiencing homelessness.

To learn more, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch sat down with Rebekah Mott, director of development and communications with the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS). Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: First, can you share a little bit about what COTS does for those who are unfamiliar with it?

 Rebekah Mott speaks into a microphone. She has a COTS banner hanging vertically behind her.
Stephen Mease Photography

Rebekah Mott: COTS is the largest service provider in Vermont for people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness or people who are marginally housed or unhoused. We provide a range of services, from prevention to emergency shelter and housing navigation. We actually operate just about 100 units of permanent, deeply affordable housing for people who have experienced homelessness as well.

When the air quality is particularly smoky, like it has been, some people don't have that luxury to heed the warnings from the health department: stay indoors, keep the windows closed, use air conditioning. What impact does extended time in poor quality air have on people who are experiencing homelessness?

People who are living outdoors, or who are precariously housed and spending some parts of the day outdoors and parts of the night, people who are experiencing homelessness generally experience disproportionately high rates of chronic illness, which includes things like diabetes, lung disease, respiratory illness, asthma, certain heart conditions. The people experiencing homelessness are already at a greater risk for things like poor air quality. It's obviously exacerbated when they're spending long periods of time outdoors unable to come inside.

What can people without housing do to stay safe in some of these conditions?

The front door of COTS, which features the word welcome in different languages.
Stephen Mease Photography

COTS operates a day station, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every single day. We have AC there, air filtration systems. The day station is a great resource, particularly for people who may be sleeping outside or may be unhoused or unsheltered. They can come in, get out of whatever weather or air quality issues that they need to get away from. They can spend the day there: have coffee, snacks, breakfast and also a free lunch every single day. They can do laundry, use computers and phones and get connected with resources beyond COTS, things like substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment, job development, all sorts of things to kind of try to get on the path towards housing, which is our ultimate goal.

Being inside in these conditions, when this wildfire smoke is particularly bad, that can feel safer for some. For other folks, much like we experienced during the pandemic, being confined indoors can really lead to those feelings of isolation. Are there some things that COTS does for people if that's the case?

The day station is a great place for people to come to get away from the isolation that they can experience. It's really a community. We see people playing cards or doing puzzles, or sometimes volunteers come and do a barbecue on the patio when the air quality is not an issue. Things like that can really help get people out of isolation and kind of establish a community. Sometimes we find that that's a great first step towards seeking community and alleviating the isolation. That could be the first step towards getting access to resources, accepting the help and getting on a path towards a sustainable housing plan.

And Rebekah, Vermont lawmakers approved a bill last week during the veto session that will allow nearly 2,000 Vermonters to continue to stay sheltered through the state's emergency motel housing program. We've still seen some people lose their rooms. How is the winding down of that program impacting the situation with poor air quality?

During the pandemic, that program was essential and keeping people safe, it allowed people to kind of get away from the congregate shelter model. It has been tremendously beneficial in terms of the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness. But at the same time, we know that it's not a sustainable solution. COTS, since 2020, has served people staying in emergency shelter and motels through our motel outreach program. So we've been able to do one-on-one housing navigation.

We're glad that there's not going to be a mass exodus, as was the plan originally; with this new plan from the state it's a little bit more of a trickle in terms of who's being exited. But at the same time, there needs to be somewhere for people to go. The problem that we're facing — although we've been able to house about 230 households since 2020 out of the motel specifically — there's such a lack of housing. Even when people have housing vouchers, even when they're ready, when they have the money saved up for the security deposit, or when they have access to assistance with a security deposit all of those things — there's just simply a lack of available units. And so that's the challenge that we're continuing to face.

And Rebekah, looking ahead, foresters are saying we might be dealing with smoke from these Canadian wildfires until snow starts falling. I'm wondering what comes next?

COTS was founded 40 years ago by a committee of citizens, and the sole purpose was really to keep people from freezing outdoors in the winter. More and more we're concerned about heat; we're concerned about high temperatures. Now with the wildfires and other natural disasters, there's concerns year round for people's safety as they're sleeping outside. That's becoming more and more of a concern each year as we're experiencing significant shifts in the weather and more extreme weather, things like the wildfire smoke. We're focused on, in particular, the day station and looking at our shelter operations to make sure that we can bring as many people inside as possible. Currently, the state has a program during the winter months for people to come inside motel rooms during the really, really cold nights. But there's not a similar program during extreme heat or during air quality alerts and things like that. So that hasn't quite caught up.

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