Nowhere to go

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Activists gather across the street from the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds to protest what they see as the unjust eviction of homeless people from the Red Cross shelter.

When Matt Collins left the Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds recently, he was given a $125 gift card and headed to stay with his cousin.

Collins, a Camp Fire evacuee from Paradise, wasn’t away long—his accommodations fell through. But when he came back to the shelter, he was turned away.

“I’m out here on the street,” he said last Thursday (Jan. 24). “I lost everything, with no money, no nothing, not even a phone. … $125 ain’t enough to survive on. You can’t even get a hotel with that.”

Collins isn’t alone. Over the past week, half a dozen people have told the CN&R they were turned away from the shelter. They headed onto the streets of Chico with meager possessions, minimal funds and nowhere to go. The Red Cross intended to close today (Jan. 31), but representatives acknowledged this week the shelter will be open longer.

In the weeks leading up to that target closure date, shelter numbers dwindled. As of Wednesday, there were an estimated 213 people staying in RVs and trailers, compared to more than 700 at the shelter’s peak count. Just under 80 people were staying inside, compared to about 250 on Jan. 15, according to Denise Everhart, the Red Cross coordinating officer for the Camp Fire. That’s when the organization brought in case workers to help those remaining form recovery plans.

In response, activists with the California Homeless Union, including a few North State homeless people, rallied to protest what they see as an unjust eviction. About 20 showed up outside the fairgrounds Monday. They held up signs with messages such as, “Keep your promise, housing and dignity” and “The street is not shelter for anyone.”

Berkeley-based attorney Anthony Prince, who serves as general counsel for the organization, said the group has heard numerous stories from those who’ve stayed at the shelter. Some people have driven hours away to stay at a hotel. Others have signed up for housing voucher wait lists, he said, or have been kicked out after missing case management appointments. The union is calling for the shelter to remain open until every person receives adequate housing.

“We’re concerned about the lack of due process in here,” Prince told the CN&R, “and we feel that people who are being helped should also be respected.”

Over the weekend, dozens of shelter guests received 48-hour notices. Everhart said those asked to leave either had a plan in place and hadn’t moved on yet; had “refused to talk to a Red Cross case worker,” which is required “because [they] need to be actively involved in recovery”; or were considered “predisaster homeless” and referred to the Torres Community Shelter.

Some RVs have been deemed abandoned and towed away, Everhart said; the rest have been moved to a back lot and hooked up to water and sewer.

The state extended the lease at the fairgrounds until mid-March. So why did the Red Cross plan on closing sooner?

Everhart said that’s when the original lease ended, and that long-term congregate sheltering is not ideal. People have no privacy and are using portable toilets and showers.

“If we can get them in a situation where they have better temporary housing, that’s everybody’s goal,” she said. For example, people have been provided with assistance for rent and for transportation. They have gone to live with friends and family, or stay in a FEMA-funded hotel.

When asked about people like Collins, Everhart said: “If somebody dropped out of the system, for whatever reason—I’m not going to point fingers—and they were from the affected area and they are willing to work with a case worker, we can get them back into the system and work on solutions.”

Getting back into the system isn’t as easy as walking up to the shelter gates. Everhart said they have to go to a Disaster Recovery Center and request that FEMA reopen their case.

But some people seem to be getting lost in the midst of a complicated process. Todd Sexton’s mobile home is still standing in Magalia, but is unlivable, he said, torn apart by looters. He has been denied help from FEMA.

Sexton told the CN&R he went to the fairgrounds about two weeks ago, seeking shelter, after living with family in Red Bluff didn’t pan out. He was turned away, then sneaked in to get some food and water. When they discovered he was wearing an old wrist band from his days at the Oroville Red Cross shelter, he was told to leave.

He’s staying on the streets now. He’d like to go see family in Utah, but has no means to get there.

FEMA spokeswoman Jovanna Garcia urged people like Sexton to appeal their cases. A majority of the time people are denied because they are missing documentation, like an ID or a property deed, she said.

People such as these, denied access to the shelter, have the union fired up.

“At the upper levels of the Red Cross, the policies they have we feel insult the dignity of homeless people, and they impose rules that aren’t necessary,” Prince said. “They have been unmindful of the circumstances of people evicted.”

On Monday, fire survivor Ashley Ruud, who lived on the Ridge, planned to spend the night at a nearby park. Earlier that day, when she’d been asked to leave, all of her things already had been packed by shelter staff.

“They said they were going to [help] with a plan, but they did not,” she said.