Wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes across Santa Rosa also drove Thesha Iraheta from a creekside encampment near Marlow Road to what has become an enduring symbol of the city’s homelessness problem — the Sixth Street freeway underpass.
The grubby bivouac of tents and bedrolls under Highway 101 that confounded neighbors and city officials before the Oct. 8 blaze has nearly doubled in size, with new arrivals spilling into the street and the adjacent Fifth Street underpass.
Like residents from Fountaingrove to Coffey Park who had to flee the flames, many homeless people said they were forced out in the middle of the night with no place to go. Some joined evacuees in area shelters while others plopped down on the sidewalk where they remain three weeks later.
“Everybody was affected by the fires whether they are homeless or not,” said Iraheta, 28, who spent the first 10 days after the Tubbs fire in a Red Cross shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. “They amplified the chaos.”
The growth of Santa Rosa’s most visible encampment is a setback for city officials who had hoped to begin moving inhabitants to temporary shelters and take steps to begin shutting it down. It was to be the second step of a pilot program begun earlier this year at a site near Farmers Lane to get some of the city’s 1,900 homeless people off the streets.
But it was put on hold in the wake of the Oct. 8 fires — the most destructive in state history and most costly ever in the U.S. — that destroyed nearly 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa and killed 23 people in Sonoma County alone.
Now, with officials embarking on a multiyear recovery, the focus is on rebuilding neighborhoods and finding short-term housing for displaced homeowners and renters.
Increased demand is driving up rents, creating a sense of despair among homeless people who fear they won’t ever get housing, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.
She and other advocates are bracing for a “second wave” of homelessness as the poor are priced out of affordable housing. It could come faster than it did in 2008 when the region was hit with widespread foreclosures, she said.
“It’s really hard because we were making so much progress,” Holmes said.
Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn said Wednesday that 68 people remain at the evacuation center set up at Finley Community Center.
A “significant number” of those people are “pre- disaster homeless,” and the city was working with Catholic Charities to get them housing, McGlynn said.
Meanwhile, homeless people who once lived in the burn zones are turning up in parks and building alcoves.
The Sixth Street encampment has swollen to as many as 75 people. Some came in from a burned-out haunt on Bicentennial Way near Fountaingrove, and another along the Santa Rosa Creek near Coffey Park.
They squeezed onto the already-crowded sidewalks, bringing pets and bicycles. During the fires, disaster relief workers made the underpass a regular stop, dropping off donated food and clothes.
Now, Red Cross blankets are draped across some tents. New trash cans line the street.
“It’s one of the safest places,” said Iraheta, holding a box of donated pastries.