Since last year’s wildfires, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa has been instrumental in helping displaced residents find secure housing in Sonoma and Napa Counties. The nonprofit has adopted a model to meet county-specific approaches for the two areas. The majority of the need is concentrated in Sonoma County. Here Catholic Charities helped triage 901 people in a long-term recovery group that’s served 1,407 people.
One of the hardest-hit communities in Sonoma County was the group of residents of Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa. Their story illustrates how state and local administrations’ procedures have left fire victims in limbo.
“At Journey’s End, 117 of the mobile homes burned to the ground and 44 remain standing. Yet those who have homes cannot return. The park’s infrastructure is destroyed and the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) condemned the park. It will cost those who still have mobile homes about $30,000 minimum to relocate. Right now, they have nowhere to go,” says Jenny Yao, lead of the long-term recovery team of the Northwest region for Tzu Chi.
Tzu Chi Santa Rosa is the local branch of an international Buddhist relief organization. This nonprofit, which has focused on assisting the former residents of Journey’s End, is one of Catholic Charities’ partners in doing disaster case management. Tzu Chi has helped triage 129 people for disaster case management.
Yao says the former Journey’s End residents do not have a new site to which they can move their mobile homes. This means they cannot use donated funds and compensation from their insurers to move the surviving mobile homes or rent new mobile homes elsewhere.
“The state doesn’t provide money for relocation but they regulate it. Burbank Housing (Burbank Housing Development Corporation of Santa Rosa, a nonprofit organization, has raised $2.5 million from Tipping Point Community (a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty) and about $1 million from the owners’ insurance policies for relocation. The money will sit until HCD approves a relocation plan,” says Yao.
Tzu Chi, along with Catholic Charities, are two of the four nonprofits engaging directly in disaster case management (DCM). The other two nonprofits involved in DCM in Sonoma County are the Sonoma County branch of Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS), which helped triage 51 people, and Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County (CAP), which helped triage 247 people.
Cynthia King, Catholic Charities’ assistant director of community services, including fire recovery in the Diocese of Santa Rosa is also the co-chair of the DCM committee in Napa County. King says there are several aspects to DCM. “DCM is part of the larger Long-Term Recovery Group (LTRG), a coalition of local organizations sharing resources and capacity with the focus of bringing their community to a full recovery after a disaster. The regions most vulnerable are less likely to recover, meaning greater resources are needed for these groups. DCM is one of these resources and can include a one- to-three-year commitment that includes an assessment, recovery plan, construction analysis for those rebuilding, and access to the Unmet Needs committee,” says King.
A COAD is a coalition to help people in an area recover from a disaster like the fires. “(The Unmet Needs committee) provides larger amounts of assistance to help a survivor reach full recovery and close their case. An example of this is funding the gap between an insurance settlement and the actual cost of rebuilding. In addition to DCM, we provide resource assistance, housing support, financial services (such as matched savings and credit repair) and financial assistance,” says King.
In Napa County, Catholic Charities supports 67 households that are receiving disaster case management through that county’s long-term fire recovery group. The Napa branch of Catholic Charities has subcontracted two other nonprofits, UpValley Family Centers and On the Move, to do the disaster case management for these households. The money for the DCM comes from FEMA funds. Catholic charities also facilitated the complicated process of implementing a Disaster Case Management Committee that would allow for the FEMA funding to be provided to these agencies. "We provided the database access, training, documentation, technical assistance, and ongoing support, as well as a communication structure, all towards helping the DCMs to learn the role of case management in long-term recovery,” says King.
Catholic Charities can assist residents in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties because these counties are in the Diocese of Santa Rosa’s six-county service area. Catholic Charities’ experience in assisting fire victims in Lake County prior to 2017 was one of the factors that motivated FEMA to award the nonprofit a $2.7 million grant for disaster case management. “This grant does not provide any direct client assistance though, that comes through the private donations our agency and other partners received in the wake of the fires, as well as consistent and generous support from the Sonoma County and Napa Community Foundations,” says King.
Catholic Charities built the database for its internal use as well as for partners and subcontractors to use to share information about clients and document DCM in the four counties, King says. “We have already identified many clients who would have been receiving redundant services from multiple agencies, usually within a county, but several across the counties as well due to displacement. It also allows the client to access more services while needing to fill out fewer forms and not have to keep bringing verifications over to different agencies. Last, it allows us to increase the consistency of services provided to clients, and measure overall outcomes for each county.”
With regard to the long-term recovery group, Catholic Charities’ primary goal in Napa and Sonoma Counties is to help fire victims who are vulnerable regain the stability they had before the fires. In Sonoma County, Catholic Charities plays a significant role as a participating organization in a coalition, Rebuilding Our Communities (ROC) Sonoma County. ROC Sonoma County is comprised of 35 partnering entities. Other nonprofits in ROC Sonoma County include Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity and United Way. The purpose of a long-term recovery group such as ROC is to work with government agencies to ensure the community reaches a full recovery; ROC-SC has developed strong working relationships with the City of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County Office of Resiliency, Fire and Emergency Services, FEMA and the California Office of Emergency Services.
“We have administered about $250,000 in client assistance in Sonoma County, primarily for housing assistance. We are reserving (more) for when other sources run out and for unmet needs,” says King.
According to Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ senior director of shelter and housing in the Diocese of Santa Rosa, about 80 percent of people in the Sonoma County long-term recovery group lived in the postage stamp of Santa Rosa. Most of the remaining lived in the Sonoma Valley and Calistoga. Holmes also serves as the co-chair of ROC Sonoma County. She says ROC Sonoma County has prioritized assisting 837 people it deemed to be in the most precarious situations.
“Ideally, each of these clients will be assigned a disaster case manager who completes an in-depth assessment and creates a detailed recovery plan with each of their 35 clients. [They will walk] with them through the recovery process as guides, coaches, and advocates,” says Holmes. “Unfortunately, our funding is still short. ROC Sonoma County is short upwards of 15 DCMs who can serve the hundreds of people waiting for disaster case management. In the meantime, (the fire victims who do not have disaster case managers) are offered casework through our agencies and partners’ resource safety net services that existed before the fire. Case work and case management help…with referrals for services like mental health, assistance with a first month’s rent and deposit, applying for benefits, and replacing lost items.”
DCMs can advocate for fire victims, says Holmes, by communicating for them with FEMA, the Small Business Administration, and their insurance companies. (Individuals who are not U.S. citizens are not eligible for relief from FEMA.) “Fortunately, many community leaders came together to address the issues for those who were undocumented and affected by the disaster. Local groups support Undocufund (a nonprofit organization that assists undocumented immigrants) in Sonoma County. We also offer our own (Catholic Charities’) immigration services to (fire) survivors as they may be eligible,” says Holmes.
Holmes says the disaster case managers also ask individuals for information to present to subcommittees from the 35 partner organizations in ROC Sonoma County. The subcommittees of these organizations hear the cases. They then determine what they can do to provide funds, furniture, or more for those in critical needs.
“The long-term recovery process will take three to five years for many people. Some people have not been able to get back to work. They’re that traumatized from the experience of losing their home and community,” said Holmes. The housing shortage and homelessness crisis that pre-existed the October 2017 fires have complicated the situation.
“There was a homelessness and housing crisis on October 7, 2017. On October 8, 2017, everything became magnified. There has been some entanglement because both fire victims and people who lack shelter for other reasons tend to first stay with friends and family members. As their situation becomes unstable, welcome wears out, they become at risk of being homeless. We’ve seen more people fall into homelessness since the 2017 fires. It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more people become homeless in the coming months,” says Holmes.
Tom Schwedhelm, Santa Rosa City Council member and chair of the rental housing committee for ROC Sonoma County, says the committee meets twice a month to hear presentations by disaster case managers on behalf of fire survivors who need housing.
In October 2018, the committee worked with the City of Santa Rosa and its Housing Authority to set aside 24 public housing vouchers for fire survivors. “We’re also partnering with landlords and property owners in the community to let them know about the need of housing for fire victims. We need more inventory. We cannot create that on our own,” says Schwedhelm. “In addition, as we compete for the few available units, often times challenges surface dealing with pets, an abundant amount of personal property and partners. It’s something many fire survivors have never had to deal with as many had lived in their home for years,” he says. The committee is hopeful Sonoma County will also set aside housing vouchers for fire survivors.
Diana Klein, Sonoma County regional director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, says there is no formula when it comes to determining need. “Every situation is assessed individually. The plan for each individual or household is different. What they will need to recover depends on the depth of their loss and the amount of their insurance,” says Klein. JFCS has worked on a number of solutions with landlords.
These included dividing the security deposit and first month’s rent into three and four payments that fire victims can make over time. “Without these solutions, the fire victims might give the landlords what they’re requesting. But then, the fire victims won’t have gas in their car or food or clothes for winter. We’ve been in the helping profession a long time. The experience we have and the systems we have in place have taught us that you have to be flexible,” says Klein.
Caitlin Childs, communications director for the Community Foundation Sonoma County, has raised funds to support nonprofits participating in fire-victim recovery, including Catholic Charities. The money for long-term recovery is held in the Resilience Fund, which raised $14.5 million dollars as of October 2018. Childs said many fire victims are still talking with their insurers about what their needs are going to be and what will be covered.”
“So far, we’ve granted $2 million from the Resilience Fund to a number of nonprofits, including Catholic Charities. In November 2017, we gave about $300,000 to 11 different organizations, including Catholic Charities,” says Childs. “In July 2018, we gave a $1 million commitment to helping individuals impacted by the fires. We’ve also granted $1 million into local programs participating in mental health work.”
Childs says more than 70 percent of donations to the Resilience Fund came from outside Sonoma County. “One of the major donors was Genentech. Hundreds of their employees came together to donate more than $500,000. Many donors to the Resilience Fund, for one reason or another, expressed a connection to Sonoma County. They’ve been seen or been touched by this county. They love our community,” says Childs.
Analyzing construction costs
In Napa County, the focus is on helping fire victims analyze construction costs. Catholic Charities has focused on helping the local community organizations transition from short-term assistance to long-term recovery. “In the first six months, Napa Community Foundation provided a lot of financial assistance through local nonprofits, with a limit of $10,000. The amount of financial assistance provided depended on a household’s income,” says King. "The role of the LTR, called Napa Fire Recovery, is to determine the focus of assistance based on vulnerability and needs assessment," explains King.
Kenny Moeller, the former senior program manager of community recovery for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Santa Rosa, says the Napa fire recovery group is working with a construction analyst in Napa to assess the cost of rebuilding. Catholic Charities is partnering with Habitat for Humanity (HFH) to determine what assistance HFH volunteers can provide in terms of labor. They’re also hiring a construction analyst who will provide support in both Sonoma and Napa counties for the duration of the recovery. “(Catholic Charities is) also helping people with the security deposit and the first month’s rent,” says Moeller. In Napa, only a “couple people left the North Bay, to Solano, Sonoma and Sacramento Counties. There’s been a huge amount of support from the community in Napa,” she says. Catholic Charities staff is trained to help clients work through this uncertainty and start to see the path before them, which gives a sense of direction and most importantly hope.
Alissa Abdo, executive director of On the Move and co-chair of the DCM committee for Napa, says On the Move is currently doing DCM for 41 fire victims in Napa County. “The individuals we’re working with now are particularly vulnerable. Many are low-income, seniors, and/or do not speak English as their first language,” says Abdo
On the Move’s clients have a variety of plans to address their housing needs. “One individual plans to rebuild on his daughter’s property. Another who had a home that burned down is looking for a permanent rental. A third wants to construct a tiny home on his property. We foresee a long road to recovery for many fire victims because of how long the insurance companies are taking to pay them back. After they get the money, they then need to go through the permitting process and construct their new home,” says Abdo.
Jenny Ocon, executive director of UpValley Family Centers, is also a member of the DCM committee-planning group for Napa. UpValley is covering both sides of Calistoga. In that respect, it serves as a Catholic Charities subcontractor for Napa and Sonoma Counties. “We’re currently assisting 32 households. Our coverage area is at the north end of Napa Valley for area code 94515. This zone crosses into Sonoma County. Right now, we’re still figuring out what peoples’ insurance policies will cover. The vast majority of people are underinsured. Several people who are rebuilding are looking at modular homes because they’re more affordable. Some people who lived in more rural areas are moving into town (Calistoga) or have relocated out of county,” says Ocon.
UpValley has also worked with Catholic Charities to address a huge outpouring of community support in the form of non-monetary donations such as food, furniture, toys and more. “We’ve coordinated with Catholic Charities, (this way) donations match the needs of our current long-term recovery clients,” says Ocon.
Mental health services
One of the most important tasks that Catholic Charities, its partners, and its subcontractors have and continue to take on is connecting fire victims with mental health services. Abdo says going to therapy and getting relief from stress are significant steps for fire victims. “Even when the money is there, many people have not gone through the process of having to build a home from the ground up. The grief from their trauma comes in waves. Sometimes the stress can be paralyzing for people navigating the recovery process,” says Abdo. “Also, people are maintaining employment while having a whole other full-time job of recovery. That’s difficult for people who are trying to put their lives back together.”
Moeller says the shock of “surviving this experience puts people in a place where they’re not sure what to do first.”
Holmes says as Catholic Charities continues to aid fire victims, it will keep in mind that people need to remain physically and emotionally well. Even when FEMA stops providing aid, Catholic Charities plans to continue helping fire victims with securing stable housing.
“The power of the long-term recovery group is that we can work beyond FEMA’s timeline for funding. Every community needs local leadership to move forward. We’ve proven ourselves to help the North Bay in the past. We will continue to do that now,” says Holmes.
As to the former residents of Journey’s End, Yao said Tzu Chi is discussing the possibility of helping those who still have mobile homes and those who could purchase them again and relocate to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds near the RV Park. For this to occur, Sonoma County would first need to publish a notice that the land is available for sale as surplus property. Tzu Chi is advocating that then, nonprofit housing developers would need to be given the first chance to buy the land. None of these steps have taken place. It’s a concern for some that the fairgrounds site is relatively far from a health care provider.
Many residents at Journey’s End lived there because it was close to Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Rosa medical campus. “Most of the former Journey’s End residents are low-income seniors between 60 and 92 years old. The majority of them are living on Social Security checks of about $1,000 a month. In addition to on-going case management, new efforts have extended to helping them get mental health services and learn how to advocate for themselves. We’ve also reached out to the City of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, FEMA and mortgage lenders on their behalf. We will advocate for the most vulnerable residents to be put on the priority list for vouchers for public housing in Santa Rosa,” says Yao.
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