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As Finley Center closes, Sonoma County’s final evacuation center residents move out

The Finely Center in Santa Rosa is now clear of fire evacuees, Wednesday Nov, 9, 2017, but Salvation Army staffer Derick Orr collects unused items, as Finley Center volunteer Nancy Nordby cleans. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

CHRISTI WARREN,

The 67 people staying at Sonoma County’s last remaining evacuation shelter have found new — if temporary — homes, with the city taking over operation of the Finley Center this week.

The effort to re-shelter the county’s final emergency center residents was coordinated by Catholic Charities, working alongside community partners like Petaluma’s Committee on the Shelterless, which welcomed seven people from the Santa Rosa community building to its Mary Isaak Center.

Others were offered housing at the Redwood Gospel Mission or at Catholic Charities shelters, given hotel vouchers, or found independent options themselves.

“Everyone had a placement option, and some of them had multiple options that they could choose from, and so that allowed us to have a transition plan for everyone,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

After taking over the Finley Center on Nov. 1, with only a week to empty the shelter, Holmes’ team scrambled to pull together all of its resources.

“To make sure everyone had an option or multiple options (for housing) within six days is nothing short of a really good example of how collaborative our community can be,” Holmes said.

Through a new program established in the fires’ wake, Catholic Charities will pay the security deposit as well as first and last month’s rent for fire victims who don’t necessarily qualify for governmental aid from FEMA or other sources. In exchange for housing, landlords will receive a $500 incentive.

It’s that fund that got Amy Lopez-Tafoya and her family into a Petaluma home on Wednesday. The home is for sale, but the property management company offered it up to Catholic Charities, promising potential renters could stay at least two months, with the potential for a month-to-month extension.

Lopez-Tafoya, 44, and her husband, Michael Tafoya, 51, were displaced from their Santa Rosa home before the fires because their landlord decided he wanted to sell it, she said. The night the fires broke out, they were still in search of a new rental — staying at the Best Western Plus Wine Country Inn & Suites in Santa Rosa along with their teenage sons Brandon, 18, and Adrian, 17. Forced to evacuate when the fire got near, the family fled south to Novato with their two dogs and stayed the night at a family friend’s house. On Oct. 10, the family transitioned to a shelter at Elsie Allen High School before ending up at the Finley Center, where they slept on cots for almost a month.

“It’s just panic mode,” said Lopez-Tafoya, who works as an in-home caregiver. Last week, while still staying at the Finley Center, she clocked almost 50 hours on the job.

“I have mixed emotions about (the Petaluma rental),” she said. “I’m grateful, but also it’s temporary, so I don’t know where I’m going to end up there after two months. It’s just really rough because with two dogs — nobody wants animals anywhere — and people are asking crazy rents.”

Lopez-Tafoya would like to keep her family in Sonoma County, but with the fires impacting the already tight rental market, finding a new place is going to be an incredible challenge, she said.

“I mean, I’ve been here since 1989,” she said. “I don’t know that I would go anywhere else.”

Mike Johnson, CEO of Committee on the Shelterless, a local nonprofit that provides homeless services in Petaluma, is concerned about what will happen if people displaced by the fires aren’t rehoused soon — especially those who were precariously housed or precariously employed to begin with.

“There’s going to be some kind of fallout from this, mostly because the housing has tightened up so much,” he said. “You have a situation in Sonoma County now when the housing that was already expensive and hard to find is being accessed by people of means that can pay even higher rent. ... If you’re a property owner or a landlord, who are you going to rent to: a fire victim with good credit and an income, or someone who is more challenged?”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.