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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Life was tough and lean for James Blair Robinson and Donna Jackson even before the firestorm of 2017 put them into a disaster evacuation center with few prospects for getting out.

The couple lived the past 33 years at the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park, at present a locked-up, taped-off, asbestos contamination site and scene of destruction.

Robinson, who’s almost 70 but looks younger, says he and his girlfriend, who’s 54, live on about $28,000 a year, most of that coming as disability benefits. They paid about $400 a month to rent the space for the 46-year-old Fleetwood mobile home Robinson owns.

“That’s why you live at Journey’s End,” he said.

His home was damaged but was among the few at the park not destroyed by the Tubbs fire, which wiped out the Fountaingrove Inn just kitty-corner across north Mendocino Avenue, and much of the adjacent Hilton hotel along with many of the pricey homes of Fountaingrove.

For Robinson’s mobile home to have come through the historic disaster mostly intact would seem to be good news. He thinks not.

He said he’s had officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and his insurance company tell him that because his mobile home was not destroyed, he can provide for his future housing needs by moving the single-wide Fleetwood from the ravaged Journey’s End to another park.

“A ’71?” he asked. “It would break up. And where would I put it?”

He has to wonder if he’d be better off had the old mobile home melted along with most of his neighbors’.

He and Jackson, who met at Santa Rosa Junior College in the early 1980s, are feeling their way through the fire recovery as longtime Santa Rosa residents who “just scraped by” before the terrifying morning of Oct. 9, had no option following evacuation other than settling into an evacuation center and have a hard time imagining where they’ll be, and how they’ll get by, six months or a year from now.

The couple had lived at the disaster shelter at Santa Rosa’s Finley Community Center for nearly a month when they left Saturday night. The city and Catholic Charities hope to find transitional shelter — a motel room, a room in a home — for the remaining approximately 45 evacuees and to allow the Finley Center to begin a return to normal use by Tuesday.

To locate a place for Robinson and Jackson and their cat, Tiger, was not easy. Catholic Charities’ Jennielynn Holmes said four shelter volunteers worked for hours to find a motel that would accept the cat.

“We finally found one,” she said.

Robinson and Jackson packed their cat and other possessions into the 1994 Ford Mustang that Robinson’s mother gave him and drove Saturday from the Finley Center to the renovated Astro Motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, near downtown.

“I got to sleep in a bed,” said a grateful Robinson, who told of being sober since 1981 and managing his bipolar disorder with medication.

He said that before FEMA paid to put them up at the Astro, he and Jackson were sheltered and fed by the Red Cross and Catholic Charities and given all sorts of things, all of which they appreciate.

One day at the Finley Center, he recalled, he was at his car when a woman drove up.

“She had the window down,” Robinson said. “She said, ‘Are you a fire victim?’ And she handed me a $25 gift card to Walmart.”

That sort of thing has happened several times. Robinson said he and his girlfriend, who deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, have been given several gift cards, and the Red Cross presented him $500 for the maintenance and fueling of his car.

Robinson remembered something else. One day at the Finley shelter, he said, a strongly built man appeared, asked if he’d been displaced by the fire and offered him his used but serviceable boots.

He tried them on, seeing that they fit fine. He looked up and his benefactor was gone.

“Was he an angel?” Robinson said. “Because he was there, and then he wasn’t.”

Though thankful for all the help and kindness he has received, Robinson took a hard hit Friday. He and Jackson drove back up to Journey’s End to check on their home and pick up a few things, and they discovered the city followed the recommendation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cut off access to the site because of high levels of asbestos.

He and Jackson met some of their former neighbors at the locked gate. Some of the other ex-Journey’s End residents were furious to be forbidden access to their homes or the remains of their homes. It creates one more layer of uncertainty for Robinson and Jackson.

Though he struggles to imagine what will become of his mobile home and where he and his girlfriend will live out their lives, he is thankful to have a motel room and a real bed.

Holmes said Catholic Charities will work to get the couple into another mobile home and subsidize their rent for a time. The money for helping low-income fire victims to rapidly obtain housing came to the agency as a $600,000 gift from Sonoma County businessmen James Ratto and Bill Gallaher.

Robinson said it’s not clear how long FEMA will pay for him and Jackson to stay at the Astro Motel, and they haven’t a clue where they will go next.

But they’re alive, and the cat’s with them, and Robinson got a nice pair of boots.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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