When I was in elementary school, my mom worked at a veterans’ hospital, doing clerical work. My brother and I spent a fair amount of time there—exploring the outdoors in the foothills of Livermore and hanging out with the old folks. It’s where we met Frenchie, Smitty and Elmer—octogenarians who enjoyed our company and vice versa.
We’d play cards and other games with the old guys in the rec room. Sometimes, I’d jump on the piano and play chopsticks or the theme to Hill Street Blues—one of the songs I’d heard on TV and taught myself to play by ear. They always acted impressed. Of course, looking back, I know that the sweet vets were humoring me.
I couldn’t help but think of them—and the other senior citizens in my life—while scouring the reports of the names and ages of those who perished in the Camp Fire. The vast majority were elderly.
This week, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released the names of two victims—both of whom lived in Paradise. Larry Smith, 80, had been transported to the UC Davis Burn Center and succumbed to his injuries late last month. The other decedent, Shirlee Teays, was 90. They are among the 86 fatalities—52 of whom have been publicly identified, ostensibly after DNA analysis and the notification of next of kin.
The sheriff’s office also reported this week that three individuals remain unaccounted for. As you may recall, thousands were listed as missing during the height of the chaos.
But what about those whose names have slipped through the cracks? Paradise was home to more than 100 homeless individuals. That’s based on the biennial countywide homeless census.
This brings up so many questions in my mind. First and foremost, did all of them make it out of harm’s way on Nov. 8? Like the Ridge’s elderly and infirm—many of whom couldn’t drive—homeless folks were among the most vulnerable. Sadly, I suspect that some of the 86 human remains located in the disaster area may not be identified.
Those who did make it out likely are in Chico—where local homeless advocates are grappling with how to care not only for our city’s population of chronically homeless but also the likelihood of an influx due to the disaster (see “A place for everyone,” Newslines).
I’ve been talking a lot lately about Chico in terms of pre- and post-Camp Fire—what’s extremely worrisome, as I’ve noted, is that the population of unhoused individuals may expand far beyond taking in the folks from the disaster area who were homeless before the fire.
Additional folks in jeopardy now: displaced Ridge residents who lived on the margins—especially those who didn’t have insurance—and can’t find affordable housing in this area; and Chico renters whose landlords who are cashing in on the disaster (see “Squeezed out,” Newslines).
I don’t know what it’s going to take to address this potential new wave of homelessness. But I do believe we have a moral obligation to care for the vulnerable members of our society. If we don’t, what does that make us?