Luana Cobb and her son are two of the last 67 people remaining at an evacuation center in Sonoma County.
From a peak of 43 shelters, just one remains: Santa Rosa’s Finley Community Center, where 83-year-old Cobb and her 60-year-old son, Dan, have stayed since the Tubbs fire ravaged their mobile home early the morning of Oct. 9.
“I’m tired,” she said. “Tired of sleeping on a cot. I’m too old for that. I would love to have my orthopedic bed, but it’s gone. ... I’d like to get settled.”
The number of people sheltered during the fires reached a height of 4,162 on Oct. 12, dispersed across Sonoma County in churches, community centers and school gymnasiums. As evacuation orders were lifted, some were able to return home. Those who couldn’t were re-sheltered, and with few options available in an already tight housing market, doing so became a community effort. The Cobbs hope to move into a mobile home in Lake County this weekend, offered up by a friend until they’re able to purchase a new mobile home and move back to Coddingtown Mobile Estates.
The Red Cross, which operated 18 shelters, guided many evacuees through that re-sheltering process — working with people to establish recovery plans and obtain federal disaster assistance aid, and pointing them in the direction of groups across the county that stepped up to find housing options for those affected.
On Wednesday, the Finley Community Center became the last shelter in the county when the Sonoma County Fairgrounds ended its tenure as an evacuation center, and the approximately 30 people staying there were moved to the Finley center. It also marked the end of the Red Cross’ shelter operations. Many of those who slept in the county’s final shelters this week were already without homes or precariously sheltered before the fires, said Cynthia Shaw, a Red Cross spokeswoman. With the Red Cross’ departure, Catholic Charities is now in charge of operations at the Finley Community Center, helping the many remaining people who don’t necessarily qualify for federal disaster aid: people who were couch-surfing, staying with friends, or had verbal rental agreements, Shaw said.
“Evacuation shelters are meant to be very temporary solutions until people can find something for mid- to long-term,” she said. “We meet with people to determine is there a gap in their recovery plan. The idea is could they have somewhere to stay but they need a bus ticket, or they need some way to get there, so we are able to provide a modest amount of financial help with that.”
A number of agencies throughout the county stepped in to help with the re-sheltering process, including Petaluma People’s Services Center, which was able to reconfigure an existing housing program to work for evacuees.
The program, called Shared Housing and Resource Exchange (SHARE), was originally created as a home-sharing program to house people age 60 and older.
Elece Hempel, the group’s executive director, said that when the fires broke out, the group came to the realization SHARE could be a viable option for those displaced. She estimated 250 to 300 families were placed in temporary housing situations, while about 175 have found long-term housing through the program.
“Some people, they knew their house was not destroyed but probably had smoke damage, so some people were in temporary housing for two to three weeks,” Hempel said.
The group processed an influx of more than 2,000 households willing to offer up rooms for fire victims in those first days, Hempel said.
“I can’t stress how much the entire North Bay was so willing to set up and help.”
The remaining evacuees will be able to stay at the Finley Community Center at least next week, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities. At that point, the city will do another assessment of the community center to determine whether it’s still needed as a shelter.
“These are the people who are probably the most vulnerable people who were displaced by the fires,” she said. “They don’t have any other options, which is why they’re still here. We’ve got to exhaust all of our creative efforts and funding opportunities and community networks to make this work.”
You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeaWarren.