A precarious predictor

It’s a devastating kind of déjà vu.

In October 2017, a fire swept through Sonoma County, forcing thousands to evacuate. Then a line of Federal Emergency Management Agency 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 number of 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 in Butte County, following the Camp Fire. And if what happened in wine country is an indicator, there’s a good chance that some of the displaced will end up among the ranks of Butte County’s long-term homeless.

That conclusion seems inevitable when studying official data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban 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 results of the annual one-night survey of homelessness with a specialized telephone audit of nearly 1,200 households. Those efforts found there were 2,996 homeless individuals in Sonoma County (up from 2,835 before the fire), 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-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 the News & Review.

There will be another homeless census in January. That, Kuykendall believes, might offer a clearer picture of 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 to 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 Oct. 7, and when the fire broke out on Oct. 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.”