By Kathryn McKelvey
The increasing influx of natural disasters is more than a warning of the impending climate crisis. The canary in the coalmine is long dead; the climate crisis has already arrived. Not only are temperatures steadily rising, but every year disasters strike with increasing frequency and intensity. According to data from the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), reported natural disasters in the United States have been steadily increasing in the past 40 years. As I write this, smoke still lays heavy in Oregon as the West Coast suffers from an onslaught of wildfires. These fires are the deadliest of the year in California and has caused over 500,000 Oregonians to be placed under varying levels of evacuation and evacuation readiness.
In 2007, a flash flood ripped through my home in a rural Oregon town. We had 20 minutes to get out and move to higher ground. The house we fled was overcome with river water, trapping us on the top floor overnight wondering if anyone knew where to find us. As the water slowly receded, volunteers from neighboring cities helped us clean the destruction. Of around 800 homes affected, 600 did not have flood insurance. We were one of those families that couldn’t afford any such coverage. At 15 years old, I was thrown from living barely above the poverty line into homelessness.
In the initial days and weeks, volunteers from the nearby towns brought supplies and helped clear debris. Eventually, they stopped coming but the destruction remained. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) surveyed land for emergency trailers but members of unaffected neighborhoods campaigned against them claiming they would lower property values. We had nowhere else to go. Nearly a year after the flood, 21 trailers were finally placed on a lot—not nearly enough for everyone affected. They smelled like formaldehyde, gave us headaches, and were soon infested with mice.
In 2009, barely a year after moving into the trailers, residents were evicted from the small trailers. The lucky ones were given cash incentives. My father didn’t receive his check until 2014, seven years after the flood. For those seven years, my father lived in an RV on the land where our house once stood. He was a general contractor and handyman who had now lost his tools and workshop, with no funds to replace them. He couldn’t find work and relied on food banks and clothing closets. People soon forgot how he had come to be that way. He was an outcast – kids made fun of him and friends stopped calling. He had always worked sunup till sundown to provide a life for us, but lost everything to the river. It was not his fault. He did not deserve this.
Houselessness is the result of extenuating circumstances. Whether it be addiction, poverty, racism, lack of healthcare, or a natural disaster. No one deserves to live without shelter. There is no reason people in the richest country in the world should live on the streets. Over the past 40 years, despite high national GDP, the United States rests in the median on the scale of those that become homeless due to natural disasters in the western hemisphere. In the United States, over 600,000 people have become homeless due to 853 natural disasters since 1980; to be more specific, the average number of people that become homeless as a result of a single natural disaster is 765. In Canada, for comparison, around 20,000 have become homeless as a result of 65 total natural disasters; the average number of people that become homeless in Canada as a result of a single natural disaster is 320. These numbers are based on available data and are likely undercounting individuals that are homeless. The United States experiences natural disasters at a higher frequency and is less prepared to relocate and rehouse its citizens after disasters.
Outside of the hundreds of thousands of displaced families, the financial burden of disasters is immense. Fiscal damages caused by natural disasters are steadily increasing over time and the exponential burden can only be curbed by immediate adoption of sustainable practices and renewable resources.
The United States, and the entire world, needs to face facts: we are simultaneously living through a climate crisis and a housing crisis, the two of which are inextricably linked. More refugees, specifically climate refugees, will come from poverty stricken, disaster ridden countries. Families and children will indiscriminately be at risk of homelessness due to events outside of human control. Structural and social factors such as poverty, class, and racism have a compounding factor: the less resources one has at their disposal, the more likely they are to become homeless after a disaster. Similarly, our already unsheltered neighbors will be far more affected by disasters. If we don’t improve our disaster relief systems and curb climate change immediately, it will be too late to protect the homeless and the countless at risk of becoming so.
Kathryn McKelvey is a homeless advocate for change, working in analytics. Analyses of interest are primarily those surrounding housing and healthcare. She wrangles two toddlers, not only just in her spare time, but all the time due to the COVID-19 stay at home orders, and attends OHSU’s School of Public Health, pursuing her Masters in Public Health in Health Systems Management and Policy. Follow Kathryn McKelvey on Twitter @KatMcKelvey.