‘In limbo’

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Mark Sutherland has been staying at evacuation shelters since the Camp Fire destroyed his home. Living on a fixed income, he’s not sure what to do for long-term housing.

For Mark Sutherland, the hardest part about staying at an evacuation shelter is the noise.

Before he arrived at the Butte County Fairgrounds, he witnessed a picturesque scene every day, familiar to those who called the Ridge their home. He had a quiet life in the hills among towering pine trees. Deer stopped by frequently to feast on the grasses in front of his mobile home in Paradise.

“I was doing just fine … and I could afford it on my Social Security,” Sutherland said. “I’m still in a state of, ‘Huh?’ I’m not quite sure what to do or where to go.”

Sutherland, who is 66, has stayed at three separate shelters since the Camp Fire ignited three weeks ago, destroying his home alongside nearly 14,000 others. Earlier this week, more than 780 refugees were sleeping on cots at American Red Cross emergency shelters across the region, including the Butte County and Glenn County fairgrounds.

Though the evacuees the CN&R spoke with expressed gratitude for the shelter, tensions have been building. Sutherland has been sharing close quarters with many other folks who, like him, are older and on a limited, fixed income, unsure of what to do about housing.

While the Red Cross shelters represent the immediate emergency response to the disaster, longer-term relief, in the form of trailers, is the next step in the recovery effort.

According to Toney Raines, who is leading the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Housing Task Force, a handful of such facilities may be ready this week. The agency is considering placing as many as 2,000 of the furnished trailers, with the caveat that the estimate changes as people register with the agency.

The FEMA-appointed task force—made up of county, town and city representatives, as well as local housing experts—has been meeting to figure out the best place to set them up. Raines said they have inspected 28 sites so far, finding 17 feasible and five potentially feasible. Larger group sites will take longer to vet, with Raines estimating about four months before they’re ready to go, he said.

He would not reveal specific locations as of press time, but said the trailers have to be located in a safe location that can provide utilities services like electricity, water and sewer, and have to be accessible, so that survivors have easy access to public transportation, schools, hospitals, police and fire services, and grocery stores. In some cases, that could mean people could park the trailers at their former home’s site while they rebuild, as soon as it is safe to do so.

At this point, the farthest location being considered is in the Sacramento area, but the task force is focusing on examining all possible locations in Butte County. “It is our goal not to move people away from the town of Paradise because we know that is going to restrict their ability to recover,” Raines said.

Raines added that the reason why the trailers were deployed in the first place is because of Butte County’s housing crisis. “We recognize the shortfall,” he said.

That’s why the agency is considering allowing folks with insurance to stay in the trailers, though they may be asked to pay fair market rent. Those who may not be eligible for a trailer will be provided with other options, such as U.S. Small Business Administration loans or rental assistance.

Once the trailers are established, the program will be in place for 18 months, with the possibility for an extension if the state requests one, Raines continued.

On his way to a housing task force meeting earlier this week, Chico City Councilman Randall Stone said the task force has “to pull out all the tricks in the hat,” because Butte County’s homeless population went from about 2,000 to easily 30,000 overnight.

“Absolutely everything is on the table,” he continued, including some topics that have been controversial, such as tent cities, inclusionary zoning (which offers incentives for development of low- to moderate-income housing) and tiny home villages. (See page 9 for an update on Chico’s Simplicity Village.)

In fact, the council’s Dec. 4 meeting will include a conversation about allowing temporary emergency housing options on public and private properties that have utility services.

Temporary homes have to be a part of the solution, Stone added, otherwise the region will experience “unacceptable losses.” To keep the Ridge community intact, “we have to build housing, and we have to build housing fast,” he said. “If we don’t get this right, we are looking at economic devastation for the entire region.”

In the meantime, emergency shelters will remain open as long as people need them, Red Cross spokesman Joe Spaccarelli told the CN&R.

At the Butte County Fairgrounds parking lot, Eddie Belfiore has been sleeping in his truck with his wife. She is 70, and they wanted to make sure she didn’t get sick when norovirus broke out at the shelter. They lost their home on Pentz Road in Paradise along with their moving business, Sensible Solutions. He has family in Santa Rosa and L.A., but he wants to rebuild on the Ridge.

Belfiore is grateful for the help: food, clothing, shower and laundry facilities. The biggest problem he’s found is the mounting tension among evacuees: “Everybody is frustrated and people are barking at each other.” He gets it, because it is so unsettling when “you’re stuck in limbo.”