A precarious predictor

In Sonoma County, some fire survivors shifted to simply being homeless

It’s a devastating kind of déjà vu.

In October 2017, a fire swept through Sonoma County, forcing hundreds into evacuation centers. Then a line of FEMA trailers began rolling in. As Cal Fire investigators began studying potential links between damaged PG&E equipment and the blaze, and as the coroner began counting the dead, some fire refugees spent weeks living alongside “pre-disaster homeless.” Both groups faced a thinned-out rental market with catapulting prices.

A year after the Tubbs Fire wreaked that havoc, nearly every element of the story is playing out again 160 miles north, in Paradise, after the Camp Fire. And if what happened in the wine country is an indicator, there’s a good chance that some of the displaced will end up in the ranks of Butte County’s long-term homeless.

That conclusion seems inevitable when studying official data from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. Some six months after the Tubbs Fire, the agency worked with officials from the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County to measure the fire’s impact on homelessness. They did this by combining HUD’s biannual one-night survey of homelessness with a specialized telephone audit of nearly 1,200 households. The effort found 2,996 homeless individuals in Sonoma County, with one-third of surveyed respondents saying they had been affected by the Tubbs Fire.

County officials also documented an additional 21,482 “precariously housed” residents—people couch- or floor-surfing, doubled- or tripled-up in homes, or on the verge of becoming homeless. Of those individuals, 39 percent lost a house in the fire and another 11 percent lost housing due to economic impacts from the fire.

Kelli Kuykendall, Santa Rosa’s Housing and Community Services manager, said she hasn’t seen any new data since April, but that the circumstances on the ground look grim.

“With the anecdotal conversations I’ve been having with our providers, the feedback continues to be about just how tough it is right now to house people,” Kuykendall told SN&R.

City and county officials will engage in another HUD-required survey in January. That, Kuykendall believes, might offer a clearer picture on the fire’s ongoing impacts.

“I think those numbers will be very telling,” she said.

Numbers on Santa Rosa’s rental market are telling enough. Prior to the Tubbs Fire, the city had a 1 percent vacancy rate. The city lost 5 percent of its housing following the Tubbs Fire. For Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, that has been a prescription for continuing calamity.

“We had a housing and homeless crisis on October 7, and when the fire broke out on October 8, we entered a whole new world,” said Holmes, who also serves on Sonoma’s task force for housing fire victims. “What we’re seeing now is the ripple effect of the fire-related market that decimated our housing opportunities, especially for people with lower incomes. We’re starting to see people enter into homelessness for the first time because of that.”

Holmes added that a false sense of security is setting in with some now that national media moved onto other stories—and other disasters.

“People think the problem’s been solved and no one was left without a home, and that’s just absolutely not true,” Holmes stressed. “There are still a lot of people in a high-crisis situation. Once the media left, and the attention left, that’s when the recovery process got a lot harder. It’s been difficult to keep a spotlight on these people who’ve had their lives turned upside down, as well as the extreme need that continues to exist here.”

The same need was on full display in the parking lot of Chico’s Walmart in the wake of the Camp Fire, which destroyed 13,972 residences and 528 commercial structures, according to Cal Fire. A tent city sprung up there full of displaced survivors. By mid-November, Walmart posted signs asking the dispossessed to leave, suggesting that within two weeks Butte County’s humanitarian crisis had already begun shifting into a public image crisis.