"We're Out Here Choking To Death": What It's Like Being Homeless on the Front Lines of the Climate Fires

A conversation with a homeless street medic working to save lives in San Francisco.

Sarah Lazare

The San Francisco skyline seen from Treasure Island on September 9, 2020 in San Francisco, California. Philip Pacheco/Getty Images

The climate-change-fueled fires raging across the western United States have spewed smoke and ash into the air over heavily populated cities and towns, subjecting residents to hazardous breathing conditions, on top of the direct threat from the infernos themselves. Among the places affected is San Francisco, where smoke has darkened the midday sky into hues of red and orange, or created a dense, mustard-yellow fog that swallows up homes and buildings. The air not only looks alarming, but is unhealthy to breathe: Officials have urged San Francisco residents to stay indoors, especially people with heart or lung diseases, as well as children. For those who can stay inside, a necessity that often compounds the pandemic-era isolation and depression, some breathe with the help of air filters. 

But in one of the most unequal cities in the country, many do not even have that option. Countless area workers, like farm laborers, have continued to show up to their outdoor jobs for fear of losing their employment and incomes if they don’t. And then there are people who sleep outside because they don’t have houses: As of 2019, there were roughly 8,000 unhoused people in San Francisco. 

Unhoused people already have a much lower life-expectancy than most people in the U.S., hovering around 52 years, and suffer greater rates of chronic health problems. As Olivia Glowacki, development director for San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, tells In These Times, In general, folks who are homeless, their health is 25 years greater than their actual age. For a 25 year old, their health is like they are 50. That’s all related to sleep deprivation, inadequate food or none at all, and all kinds of things like that.” Discarded by society, and often criminalized for their very existence, unhoused people now find themselves on the front lines of a new phase in the climate crisis, forced to breathe in unhealthy air with no protections or social support, despite the fact that they are more likely to be vulnerable to the hazardous effects.

In These Times spoke with Shanna Couper Orona, who goes by Couper,” a 47-year-old unhoused activist living in San Francisco. Couper is a disabled former firefighter who uses her skills to act as a street medic for unhoused people across the city. She spoke to In These Times about what it’s like to weather seemingly apocalyptic conditions, how the poor air quality is affecting people more vulnerable than her, and what she would like to see the city do to support its unhoused population. People out here, when they wake up, they can’t breathe, or they have bloody noses,” she says. It’s scary, and who do they have to turn to? There is no one to give a fuck about them.”

Sarah Lazare: Can you please tell me your story? What kind of advocacy do you do?

Couper Orona: I’m a street medic, out there helping people. I’ll go anywhere where people need help. I will never turn them away. I volunteer with the Coalition on Homelessness, and I do harm reduction with the Homeless Youth Alliance. We do a lady’s night twice a week for houseless women where they can get food, supplies and harm reduction supplies. I’m a disabled firefighter — I was hurt on the job. I use my skills I learned as a firefighter out on the streets. Most people won’t go to the hospital if they have a bad abscess or wound. There is embarrassment, shame of being looked down upon because they are unhoused. Oh my god, that person is a drug addict.” I go to encampments checking on people. People come and get me at all hours of the day. I’m glad they come and get me. I always walk with a smile on my face because it’s hard out here and I want to make people smile.

I love my city, but I’m embarrassed by my city. Our city does not have our backs. We exist and are here. Let’s help each other. Our city government doesn’t give a fuck. It’s really sad. Give people a shot. We are left out here to die and are ignored. The pandemic we are going through, no one was ready for. They closed their doors and walked away from us and left us here to fend for ourselves. I’m out here every day and see the suffering. 

I myself am unhoused as well. I live in an RV on the street here in San Francisco. I’ve been unhoused a little less than five years.

Sarah: I’m sure you know that the fires have created dangerous smoky air that is unsafe to breathe, and many in San Francisco are staying inside and filtering their air, trying to protect their lungs and health. How is the poor air quality affecting people who do not have that option and either sleep on the streets or in their vehicles?

Couper: There are a lot of older folks out here, a lot of people who have asthma. I’ve been doing a lot of asthma treatments on the streets, trying to get people to wear masks. Younger folks are having a hard time breathing. They are scared because they never had asthma before, scared because they don’t know what effects it will have on them later. People will say, I couldn’t breath last night,” or I had a bloody nose last night. Am I okay?” I try to bring some calmness, explain what their body is doing, what the smoke is going to do. But we don’t actually know what is in that smoke. People who have asthma are being affected by it way more. It’s hard for them to control their asthma. 

I don’t see the city out here. They’re not prepared for anything. We’re out here choking to death and the city is not doing anything. There’s nothing out here.

Sarah: Can you please describe what it’s like to spend so much time unprotected from the poor air quality?

Couper: The other day I didn’t know if it was day or night. The sky was bright red. I thought it was dawn all day. The whole city was covered in smoke, but it was red, orange. Breathing that day felt prickly in your throat. I put my head in my pillow and was breathing in my pillow like it was a respirator. I felt like I could chew the air — it felt thick and prickly in my throat. I know what it’s like to eat smoke — I was a firefighter for a lot of years. I was used to that. 

People out here, when they wake up, they can’t breathe, or they have bloody noses. It’s scary, and who do they have to turn to? There is no one to give a fuck about them. 

I felt more alone that day. There was no one out. I couldn’t breathe. I felt really scared and alone, and I’m a very strong and together person. But folks that aren’t, how are they feeling right now? That was running through my head. Scared, alone, angry, sad. People going through it are scared right now because they can’t breathe. They can choke because of just the air.

Right now, I’m walking and looking at downtown, and you see all the haze, can see the smoke on the buildings. I could almost cut it if I had a knife right now. It’s odd and eerie. Hopefully we can get some wind, blow some smoke away. When the wind does come, people are so relieved.

Sarah: Are you worried about how this will affect the long term health of you and your friends?

Couper: I try not to think too much about myself. I was like, This is probably going to fuck me up later.” People I deal with who have major medical issues on the street, I worry. I hope their asthma doesn’t get worse, I hope they are able to breathe. People ask, Is all this smoke going to shorten my lifespan?” I try to give the best answer I can, but I’m not a scientist. I don’t know. I tell them to pay attention to their surroundings and breathing. 

No one is saying, Hey, residents, this might affect you later in life, so let’s do A, B and C so that you can be protected.” No one is doing that. We are just breathing the air.

Sarah: What would you like to see from the city right now?

Couper: First, give a fuck — make your words matter. If you say you’re going to do something, like give free air purifiers tomorrow, then do it. We need trustworthy people in city government. I want to see real results and solutions. I want them to figure out how to keep our residents safe. Our mayor is safe — she is in a house. Let’s figure out a way to get all of us safe and not suffering out in the street, not worrying where you are going to sleep and where you are going to eat. We should be able to be safe, secure, fed, and feel like we belong. Most people feel like they don’t belong at all. I would say to city leaders, Come out and see what it’s like, actually talk to unhoused residents instead of assuming you know what they want and making up their minds for them.” You treat them like they’re little babies — not cool. I would like them to come out and see what it’s like, come talk to people, come together as neighbors. We need to work with each other to make it through this shit.

Sarah: Are you worried that climate change will keep creating these conditions of smoke and unsafe air, year after year?

Couper: To be honest, I’ve only thought a little bit about that. I hope this doesn’t fuck shit up for this year and the year after. I try to do what I’m doing now and live in the now, because I don’t know what would happen if we are fucking shit up, but I hope we’re not. 

Sarah: Is there anything you haven’t said yet that you want to make sure our readers know, particularly those who live in other parts of the United States and world and might not know what it’s like in San Francisco right now?

Couper: That we are strong people out here, we’re respectful, we exist, and just because we are unhoused doesn’t mean we’re not like everyone else. When I was a kid, when my mom was at work, if mom had to work late, my best friend’s mom would have us come over to have dinner. I would stay there until my mom was home. What we are lacking right now in society is neighbors helping neighbors. There is a lack of empathy and caring. It’s their fault they’re homeless.” Not true. They didn’t choose to be homeless. If you see someone who’s homeless, say hi, ask them to tell a story. They are your neighbors, whether they have a home or not.

I want people to care about each other. If someone needs help, if you see them on the ground, ask them if they are okay. Don’t step over someone.

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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