“There’s Nowhere To Go.” Unsheltered Individuals Sleep Outside Amid Fire Season

Sep 18, 2020

In Washoe County, the air quality has been deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups for more than 20 days in the last month due to fires in California. When air quality is compromised, people are recommended to limit their time outside, but unsheltered individuals can’t always do that.

With COVID-19 shuttering indoor congregate settings and limited shelter space, people like Doug Sobolik are sleeping outside this fire season. He’s been unsheltered for about eight years and spends his days at a park.

Doug Sobolik at Barbara Bennett Park in Reno, Nev., on Friday, Sept. 11.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio

“We have nowhere to go,” Sobolik said, “There’s nowhere to go. You can’t go inside a building. There's nowhere to go. It hurts, your lungs are always burning, you’re coughing, you’re congested, it feels like you've got pneumonia.”

Being outdoors can lead to a range of health impacts, according to Washoe County Health District Air Quality Specialist Brendan Schnieder.

“These fine particulates that are found in wildfire smoke can travel deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream. It can complicate asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lead to something as serious as a heart attack,” Schnieder said.

Before the pandemic, there were roughly 1,000 unsheltered individuals in Washoe County, and City of Reno officials say that number has been increasing during the pandemic.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

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