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‘What we’re doing is not enough’: How air pollution affects the homeless of Salt Lake County



SALT LAKE CITY — Invisible populations.

That’s the term Daniel Mendoza, research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, uses when discussing the homeless.

Individuals experiencing homelessness are everywhere, in every major city across the U.S., but they aren’t nearly as talked about. In fact, they are often ignored, including by scientists and researchers.

The result is that homelessness — and the associated consequences — is widely understudied, with research barely scratching the surface on how society can best help these individuals.

“Unfortunately,” Mendoza said, “the most vulnerable individuals, and I’d strongly consider individuals experiencing homelessness as the most vulnerable individuals in society, they do not get the representation, and they do not get the attention.”

A team of researchers from the University of Utah decided to start the ball rolling and released a pilot study Friday with preliminary data on how the homeless in Salt Lake County are impacted by the state’s poor air quality.

The paper is the first of its kind.

“Our paper is the first ever to have looked at the impacts of air pollution on this population,” Mendoza said. “No one has gone out to survey this group of individuals because there just hasn’t been much done. It is much sexier to look at something like kids with asthma and, for example, school recess guidance.”

Air pollution

The research team conducted 138 interviews with homeless individuals last winter, asking a series of open-ended questions to discover the lived experience of the homeless in Salt Lake County.

“It’s a population that doesn’t really get interviewed and is not allowed to speak for themselves,” said doctoral student Angelina DeMarco, who helped conduct the interviews. “So we really wanted to present the opportunity for anybody that wanted to speak about their experiences, their knowledge, all of that information, we just wanted them to have that opportunity.”

Along with fellow doctoral student Rebecca Hardenbrook, DeMarco spent weeks visiting homeless shelters and hitting the streets to talk with individuals who were unsheltered.

“We did it during the winter months, which was rough, you know, and not for us, right? I had gloves and boots and a warm coat,” DeMarco said. “It was difficult to conduct interviews with individuals that were suffering, right? We were out in the rain, the sleet, the snow, freezing temperatures.”

Aside from demographic questions, the interviewers primarily asked about how the homeless were affected by air pollution.

Then, with the interviewees’ consent, the researchers accessed Utah’s Homeless Management Information System database to augment their data and verify most of the participants’ information regarding chronicity and time in shelters.

The researchers found that 89.1% of the homeless they interviewed reported seeking medical attention for a condition related to poor air quality.

Additionally, 61% of interviewees reported physical reactions to air pollution, and 37% reported emotional stress due to air pollution.

One of the team’s primary hypotheses was that chronicity and use of shelter would have significant impacts on health.

“That’s the premise, that’s the hypothesis that we went into with,” DeMarco said. “As our results show, we didn’t see that clear definition between individuals sheltered versus unsheltered having better health.”

There was also not strong evidence that the non-chronically homeless were in better health than individuals who were homeless for 52 weeks or longer.

The unexpected results could be due to a number of different factors, and the team is looking for additional grant money to help them expand on the study and their “baseline” findings.

“We definitely need more data to really expand upon what it is that we are finding out with this research study. And that’s our goal; we saw this as a pilot study to get this going, because there is no other research that exists like this,” DeMarco said. “So, yes, we need more data. Yes, we need to talk to more people. Health records would be great, a better understanding of mental health, a better understanding of where individuals are sleeping at night, those things are needed.”

At risk

“The human body does regenerate,” Mendoza explained. “So, for example, we sleep, and we feel better the next day. Whenever we, for example, feel sick, now the important thing is to rest.”

“With air pollution … it also causes inflammation in your body. What happens is you need to get a break. You get a break from it, so you’re not really out there for hours and hours, then your body can start to heal itself.”

Many who are homeless seldom, if ever, get that needed reprieve from the outdoor air. And when they go to emergency shelters to sleep, they are often still outside during emission peaks throughout the day — when people are coming from and going to work.

Despite this, it might be where the homeless spend their time while outdoors that is most damaging.

Some individuals experiencing homelessness sleep by the sides of roads, and many panhandle on street corners.

Both are terrible choices in terms of health.

“Going from zero miles an hour to two and a half miles an hour burns about 20 times — pollutes about 20 times — more than going at a steady 60 miles an hour in a car,” Mendoza said. “So when you’re accelerating from a standstill, that pollution is intense — really, really high levels of pollution.”

That means a person standing at an intersection is being blasted with pollutants every couple minutes when the lights change.

The emissions from cars and buildings are especially harmful to people, since they are at breathing height, Mendoza said.

“That’s part of why I’m thinking a lot of people who are in these situations, who are panhandling on the side of the road, or who are just even staying on the sides of the road. They’re getting so much pollution, that the evening time exposure probably doesn’t affect them as much,” he said.


The researchers emphasized that additional research is needed to better understand the complex issue of homelessness.

Because their study is completely novel, the researchers couldn’t delve deeply into any one area, as they needed to get a general baseline of data. When further research is conducted, questions can be refined to be more insightful.

“We’re pushing forward looking for more grants to try and expand our study,” DeMarco said. “We want to look at things like food deserts. We want to look at mental health. We want to look at other environmental justice factors. So for us, we’re hoping this is just the starting out point.”

However, based on their initial results, DeMarco believes that society needs a monumental shift in the way it handles homelessness.

“For me, it’s a policy standpoint, that we’re placing our shelters in the wrong places,” she said. “It’s degrading in the sense of their health; it’s degrading in the sense of respect to them as individuals. Policy, for me, is the big thing. Shelters are in the wrong place, and we need affordable housing, and we need housing first programs. Because what we’re doing is not enough.”

On a more comprehensive level, Mendoza emphasized that society needs to focus on these invisible populations more than it currently does.

“We need to really be cognizant of all populations,” Mendoza said. “I think that while it is much easier, for example, to not necessarily justify, but to discuss with people that children need to be protected, that compromised individuals need to be protected, or that seniors need to be protected, I think that we also need to take care of our very vulnerable populations, which include, as I mentioned, refugees, individuals experiencing homelessness. Because no one is really speaking out for them.”

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