Irish Greenwade had moved to Paradise a month before the Camp Fire broke out. She and her husband came from Oklahoma seeking a better life and they’d posted up in the Paradise Inn while looking for more permanent accommodations. Then they, like so many others, lost everything.
“We were just getting settled in there,” she said last week in the parking lot of Lowe’s, where she, her husband and her brother-in-law have been sleeping in their cars. She hasn’t been able to get hold of the hotel owner to try to get some of their money back—they’d paid up front for the month.
The Lowe’s parking lot is just one of the places people displaced by the Camp Fire, as well as local homeless folks, have set up temporary homes. An empty lot near Walmart was the first—and largest—of such pop-up campgrounds, but since its dismantling in early December, there have been fewer and fewer places for people to go as businesses and churches move on with daily life.
Last week, the problem got a whole lot bigger. On Friday (Dec. 14), not only had campers vacated the parking lot at Home Depot, but those who were chronically homeless began to be turned away from the Red Cross-run shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds.
“According to the county, we had to ask them to vacate that space over the weekend,” said Stephen Walsh, a spokesman for the Red Cross. “We open shelters at the request of local counties—it’s standard protocol.”
But Walsh’s admission that the organization had started to turn the chronically homeless population away came in stark contrast to earlier messages underlined by the Red Cross, namely that they are there to serve everyone, regardless of how directly they’ve been impacted by the disaster. The timing of the decision—before a big rain storm and one week before the Safe Space Winter Shelter was set to open—also has come under scrutiny.
“Here we are in the coldest weather … and I asked if they could stall for a week until we had Safe Space open,” said Angela McLaughlin, president of the Safe Space board of directors. “It’s incredibly disheartening and frustrating that they were forced out into the rain and cold this time of year.”
By her estimates, there were about 100 chronically homeless people camping out at the fairgrounds. Those who lost homes to the fire were moved into a pavilion on the grounds to get them out of the elements, Walsh confirmed.
For the county’s part, Callie Lutz, public information officer, said the Red Cross shelter is meant to serve people affected by disaster. Other organizations, such as the Torres Community Shelter, the Jesus Center and Safe Space, are better equipped to help the “predisaster homeless.”
“The decision on that transition process was made collaboratively,” she said. When pressed, she said it fell under the purview of the Department of Employment and Social Services, which is tasked with overseeing care and sheltering of displaced residents during a disaster. A phone call to Shelby Boston, who runs that department, was not returned by press time.
“We made sure people got the right resources,” Lutz added.
Since the Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8, thousands of Butte County residents have sought refuge in local emergency shelters, several of them operated by the American Red Cross. As the refugees, as some call them, have found more permanent housing, those shelters have merged. At its peak, Walsh said, the Red Cross alone was operating six emergency shelters. Many other entities, from churches to service organizations, laid out air mattresses and cots in their communal rooms.
“At some point, those places want to get back to business,” Walsh said. “We’re down to one shelter, which has 700-plus people at it right now.”
While he maintains that the Red Cross doesn’t check IDs in the wake of a disaster, he confirmed that that protocol had been implemented at the fairgrounds. “I don’t know why people have been asked if they can prove that they lived here before the fire,” he said. “But apparently that’s what’s been happening here.”
At Tuesday night’s Chico City Council meeting, during a discussion of a low-barrier shelter, Councilwoman Ann Schwab posed the question: Are people being “kicked out” of the fairgrounds? Amanda Ree, executive director for the Red Cross’ Northeast California chapter, approached the podium to answer.
“We did give folks 48-hour notices to transition out,” she said, adding, “It saddens me to hear folks say they were kicked out.” A phone call to Ree for further comment was not returned by press time.
With few options for alternative shelter, however, that’s how many people have been characterizing the move. There was space available at the Torres Shelter, Lutz said—and a shelter employee confirmed. And there were a few spaces open at the Jesus Center’s Sabbath House, McLaughlin added. But various entry requirements preclude some people from seeking shelter there.
McLaughlin is concerned for the future. The Red Cross has publicly said it will remain in Chico as long as it is needed, but she questions that and worries that Chico will be home to many more homeless in the months to come.
“We cannot occupy the fairgrounds forever,” Walsh said. “We will provide people with options. Whether they take those options or not is up to them.”