After the North Bay Fires, Who is Forgotten?

In the wake of the North Bay fires, adequate services for chronic homeless, undocumented, and incarcerated people have been few and far between.

Harper Bishop (L) points to a section of his home as wife Cristy surveys their home destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam.

In the aftermath of the North Bay fires neighbors and community members have come together to offer their spaces, their extra blankets, their arms to those suffering tremendous loss. Donations have poured in from around the country, filling drop-off centers to the brim and overwhelming the emergency infrastructure falling into place. But this “disaster communism” is short lived, and it often leaves important communities behind.

One of the most prominent homeless encampments in Santa Rosa is known as Remembrance Village. Nestled behind the Dollar Store along a bike path it is a camp that has been more or less sanctioned by the city. The camp has coordinated trash pickup and portable toilets to provide a basic level of dignity to residents, and as donations come in they go through a front desk, run by residents, who sort the items and distribute them equitably.

Immediately after the fire, residents said there was a sudden dip in donations coming through, as attention became focused on a class of newly homeless folks, but soon carloads were coming with respirators, hot meals, clothing, and toiletries. But less of those supplies made their way to those in smaller and less visible camps, or to individuals sleeping alone.

One homeless man, B, was filling in to help distribute materials to those who are being overlooked. He is staying on the street right now while his wife and kids are in a hotel, after losing their home to the flames. B loaded up his backpack with toiletries, first aid supplies, and little bags of dog food from the back of a supply truck sent around by the Sonoma County Wobblies, one of the main groups coordinating support for longtime homeless folks in Santa Rosa in the aftermath of the fire.

“A lot of folks have been displaced from their camps, and are out here with nothing waiting to go back to check on their belongings,” he said. “It may seem insignificant to you, but it’s the world to these folks.”

With thousands of people displaced by the many fires that have swept through the North Bay Area, the need for affordable housing is more urgent than ever. While California law prohibits raising rent by more than 10 percent after an emergency has been declared, already Santa Rosa rents have skyrocketed, with some residents reporting increases between 20 and 40 percent according to the Guardian.

While all eyes are on the North Bay now, B worries what will happen a few months down the line, when attention is shifted to another disaster. He emphasized the need for long term organizing and support.

“We need your prayers. We need long term strategy. Please keep posted about what’s going on here, but also get yourself ready,” he said. “We need people organizing in their own neighborhoods. Remember that you gotta cut your own grass.”

About a mile from Remembrance Village, a man named Polo has a little camping spot set up against the fenceline of a city park. The fire burned the camp he used to live in by Kmart, and he lost everything. His motorized bike, his family photos, the letters he got while in jail, his tent, everything was charred and burnt up. “It hurts real bad because I can’t work a steady job right now. I lost everything I was able to to hustle up, and I worked so hard for those things.”

The Wobblies, as well as many churches and community groups, have provided basic supplies to homeless folks all over Santa Rosa in the wake of the fires. Donations of toothpaste, shampoo, hydrocortisone, sweaters, tents, sleeping bags, and inflatable mattresses have piled up in the homes of volunteers and then been loaded into vehicles to distribute around the city. They see themselves as filling in gaps that have been left by the big institutional response from FEMA and the Red Cross. 

“We stepped in because in the face of natural disaster there were a lot of needs to be met, and we noticed a lot of people who were houseless were ignored, neglected, and overlooked,” said Frank Robes of the Sonoma County Wobblies. “So we took it on ourselves to assist our community, be it by distributing masks, water, food, whatever is needed.”

Longtime homeless folks are not the only one being overlooked during this crisis; many undocumented folks are also struggling to find stability with limited access to the resources being offered by the state. FEMA only provides financial assistance to legal citizens so a lot of the immediate relief is inaccessible to anyone without papers.

Many undocumented people have also chosen to avoid the shelters, many of which have a heavy police and National Guard presence. Although ICE has agreed not to target people at the shelters, many would prefer to provide for themselves elsewhere than take the risk in the shelters. Large camps of immigrants and undocumented folks have popped up along the coast, where communal kitchens are being set up to feed the displaced communities and where donations have been flowing in.

But organizations like the Graton Day Labor Center have stepped in to provide the support that isn’t coming from elsewhere. In coalition with a number of other groups they have created the UndocuFund, a money pot being distributed directly to families who are turned away from FEMA and other federal aid. Many within the immigrant community have lost their homes, and even more are struggling to make ends meet as they have lost their employment at the restaurants, hotels, and vineyards that burned. The fund is being used to directly support folks in finding new housing, and to cover rent while folks are out of work.

As residents of Santa Rosa and neighboring cities grappled with the raging flames, all communication was cut to those incarcerated at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Main Detention Facility. According to one person in the jail, inmates were told that there was a small municipal fire, but had no idea that flames were ravaging their neighborhoods outside. Although the facility was within the bounds of the original Evacuation Area as of October 9th, no inmates were evacuated.

As long term support structures fall into place, responders will need to be vigilant to prioritize the needs of homeless people, undocumented people, and those who are incarcerated.