Shelter no more

John Millergeorge is living at the Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds so he can be close to home to take care of business that comes up. His house, in a mobile home park in north Paradise, did not burn—but he hasn’t been cleared to re-enter. And he’s concerned he’ll be turned out on the streets come Feb. 1 after the Red Cross closes its facility.

Others have expressed similar worries about the future of the approximately 600 people now residing at the fairgrounds.

“What happens on Feb. 1 is still a big unknown,” Jennifer Griggs, coordinator for Butte County’s Continuum of Care, told the CN&R Wednesday (Jan. 16). “As of right now, I am not aware of the transition plan or what is going to happen at 5 o’clock on Jan. 31.”

While the Red Cross has maintained since it opened its shelters immediately following the breakout of the Camp Fire on Nov. 8 that it will keep them open until there is no longer a need, officials announced Monday at the Continuum of Care (CoC) meeting that it will be closing its only remaining shelter, at the fairgrounds, on Jan. 31.

“We want to respect the fact that, long-term, people shouldn’t be sleeping on cots,” Amanda Ree, executive director for the Northeastern California chapter of the Red Cross, told the CN&R. “It’s not a long-term environment.”

According to Ree, who lives in Chico, the Red Cross on Monday switched gears and began to assign case workers to meet one-on-one with everyone staying at the fairgrounds to develop individual recovery plans, including discussing living arrangements.

“We’re not going to put folks out on the streets who literally have no place to go,” she said. “We have a network of partners who may be able to work toward a solution.”

That network includes local agencies and service providers as well as those on the state and federal level. If history repeats, however, the burden likely will fall on local agencies.

In recent years, the Red Cross has come under scrutiny for its tactics as well as its use of funding. A 2016 report following relief efforts in Haiti, for instance, revealed that one-quarter of the money donated to the agency for that cause—a full $125 million—was spent internally.

A Red Cross employee told news reporters covering the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Miami in 2017 that the emergency shelter there was never meant to be long-term. Three hundred people were staying there at the time that shelter was closed. That employee told CBS that “we want people to move forward; we don’t want them to sit and languish in a pseudo-comfortable situation when they should be out working hard to figure out what they’re going to do next.”

Griggs and other local homeless advocates are concerned about the number of people who have become homeless because of the Camp Fire. Many who had insurance or have received other financial assistance have found housing locally, are bunking with family and friends or have simply moved out of the area.

The Torres Community Shelter is planning to open up 24/7 and become completely low-barrier, which will ease some of the stress on local resources. Pets will be allowed, Executive Director Joy Amaro told the CoC at its meeting Monday, and the shelter will discontinue drug testing. The shelter received a portion of the money donated by the Walmart Foundation to fund these changes.

The bulk of the funding will go toward an additional low-barrier shelter and a site has been tentatively identified, but retrofitting and permitting are needed before that can open, Jesus Center Executive Director Laura Cootsona said at the meeting.

With those limited options, a contracted housing market and limited vacancies at local RV parks in Butte County, Griggs told the CN&R that CoC case workers are now faced with the reality of having difficult conversations with those whose options are running out.

“We’re figuring out how we can fund some rental assistance so we can relocate people out of the area,” she said. “We’re asking people to uproot and leave something they may have known for many years and move hundreds of miles away. We’re working with those folks that have a variety of challenges, and we’re asking them to do things that most of us would never, ever consider.”

The Red Cross’ Ree acknowledges that options are few for those staying at the fairgrounds, especially considering the state-run debris-removal program has yet to begin. Many folks may be able to move back to their properties while that process is underway, however, according to Casey Hatcher, economic and community development manager for Butte County.

In the town of Paradise, property owners are able to live in RVs on their land if it’s two-thirds of an acre or larger, she said. In unincorporated Butte County, it must be at least an acre. In addition, Gridley has approved 350 manufactured homes for fire survivors provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“One of the challenges is people want to stay close to home,” Hatcher said of the Red Cross shelter closing. “Not everyone is going to have that opportunity.”

Griggs is confident that the hundreds of people residing at the fairgrounds won’t be put out on the streets, but rather that local service providers and government will work together to come up with a fallback plan.

“It is very sudden, it is very concerning and worrying. [But] I have to have trust and faith that our county and the Red Cross and FEMA know not to just shut that gate and evict the people,” she said. “There will be a solution that is workable for all parties.”