"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.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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