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Homelessness Crisis Looms For Camp Fire Evacuees

CHICO (KPIX) – On Friday, hundreds of people displaced by the camp fire were still desperate to figure out a way get a roof over their heads.

With deadline to clear out the makeshift camp set up in the Chico Walmart parking lot looming, the Red Cross trying to accommodate more people about 45 minutes away at the Butte County Fairgrounds.


"All I know is they told us to leave Walmart and this looked like the best option," said Mark Sutherland, who lost his Paradise home in the fire.

"The volunteers are wonderful. They're doing everything they can, but people are…their nerves are just rising, said Grover Bonham, who was also left homeless by the fire. Everything rising to the surface. Some people just breaking down."

There was a sense that the official response to what is basically a sudden and tremendous housing crisis has also broken down a bit this week.

The situation is leaving some folks trying to solve that problem on their own.

A number of fire refugees are now living in the packed East Avenue Church in Chico. Pastor Ron Zimmer said the demand was simply more than anyone could get a hold of in the initial days of the crisis.

"The people that don't have any other place to go are coming here," said Zimmer. "The fact that the county stumbled out of the gate makes sense. But they've got some feet under them now and they're doing more. But the need is greater than any one group can respond to."

When asked where she would be without the church offering shelter, Camp Fire evacuee Dorothy Melton replied, "Nowhere. I would have nothing. I left with nothing and I would have nothing"

As the search for victims continued Friday, the hunt for housing is just ramping up for those who escaped with their lives from the Camp Fire.

Many people who lost their homes in Paradise are uninsured and have nowhere to go. Survivors of the Camp Fire say they're stuck in limbo, waiting for help.

They don't have the money for a hotel and they refuse to go to shelters because they can't take their pets or because they're concerned about the norovirus outbreak.

Many were asking the same question: "Where is FEMA?"

For hundreds -- if not thousands -- of Camp Fire victims help isn't coming quickly enough.

"Now what? We don't know where to go, what to do. We are hoping for some answers," said one fire victim.

But those answers aren't likely to come from FEMA.

Despite popular impression, FEMA officials say their response is initially meant to take a back seat to local aid.

In fact, the process is designed that way.

The fire broke out on the morning of November 8th. That same day, Governor-elect Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for California

Three days later, Governor Brown requested federal disaster relief.

After the regional FEMA coordinator consulted with the White House, President Trump declares a federal 'major disaster declaration' the following day.

That declaration allows fire victims to register for federal aid and FEMA to mobilize forces on the ground.

In Chico, FEMA opened its disaster recovery center Friday, four days after that federal declaration. FEMA officials said that timeline was incredibly fast.

But plenty waiting in line at the recovery center, and across the street at the makeshift settlement in the Chico Walmart parking lot, disagreed.

"I don't know what we are going to do. FEMA says its 7-15 days just to let us know," said evacuee Carol Whitehurst.

KPIX asked FEMA why it hasn't dispensed hotel vouchers or monetary aid yet.

"Shelters are supposed to fill that gap. That's the shelters. They serve that function in the transition," said FEMA worker Brad Pierce. "And of course, right now there's some public health concerns with some of the shelters, and so that confuses the situation and makes it a little more complicated."

Friday evening, FEMA contacted KPIX to say that transitional shelter was now available to people who had registered and were deemed eligible.

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