Day laborers face financial strain following the Kincade fire

Dressed warmly in a fuzzy purple sweater, hat and thick boots, Santa Rosa resident Isabel Lopez was ready to work.

She was joined by more than two dozen other day laborers and a handful of house cleaners Thursday morning at the Graton Day Labor Center. Many also dressed for the cold weather and were in search of a few hours’ worth of pay at the end of the month to pay rent.

Nearly all said they had spent several days without work, an impact of the Kincade fire still burning in the northeastern edge of Sonoma County. The blaze had passed through some of the area’s vineyards and was still sending harmful smoke into the air.

The situation was exacerbated for workers who had already burned through some of their monthly wages in order to leave their homes under evacuation orders, issued for roughly 190,000 people in the county. Those costs included paying for hotel rooms, dining out and gas to get to relatives living in other counties, as Lopez did after her home was placed under evacuation orders early Sunday.

As the hours passed, the chances of someone calling the center in search of workers diminished.

“I don’t think it’s going to be possible today; they usually call us by now,” said Lopez, who lives with her two grandkids, as well as her daughter and son-in-law, both day laborers. “Right now, no one is working.”

The group represents a fraction of the estimated 2,000 temporary, hourly workers living in Sonoma County, many of whom are likely facing similar bouts of ?joblessness in the immediate aftermath of the Kincade fire, Graton Day Labor Center’s Executive Director Chrisy Lubin said.

The laborers are among the community targeted by 20 local organizations that mobilized to help Latino and other low-?income families with immediate and long-term needs brought on by the fire and subsequent evacuations, said Ariel Kelley, the CEO of Corazón Healdsburg.

The nonprofit, which operates out of the Healdsburg Community Center, launched its Unity & Community Fund for the Kincade fire soon after the fire broke out and had raised about $150,000 by midweek, Kelley said. The group is getting help from the Latino Community Foundation, a coalition of philanthropists and businesses that distributed about $1.3 million to nonprofits in the wake of the region’s 2017 wildfires. The foundation will additionally help Nuestra Comunidad, a nonprofit started in late 2018 by a retired local dispatcher that focuses on emergency and disaster preparedness within ?Spanish-speaking communities.

A fund to specifically help undocumented families impacted by the fire, including those who work as day laborers, was reinstated Saturday and is overseen by the Graton Day Center, the North Bay Organizing Project and the North Bay Jobs with Justice. UndocuFund started in 2017 in the wake of the Northern California wildfires, which killed 24 ?people and destroyed upward of 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.

“So many of our low-?income community members are living paycheck-to-paycheck that losing a day or a week of work would just be kind of devastating,” Kelley said. “That’s why our network jumped into action.”

About $60,000 of Corazón Healdsburg’s funds have already been doled out for immediate emergency relief, used by families to clothe and feed family members who had fled their homes under mandatory evacuations, Kelley said. About ?350 families with relatives who had health issues or other sensitive needs were also put up in hotels, representing about 1,000 people in all, Kelley said.

“We started hearing things like ‘We don’t have enough gas money to get home,’?” Kelley said. “There was a real strong sense of urgency out there.”

Bilingual teams of volunteers from various nonprofits were dispatched to shelters throughout the Bay Area, collecting intake forms that will help the nonprofit determine where additional resources should go to best serve families long term, Kelley said. Those forms were also collected at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair, where a contingent of about 300 evacuees was hunkered down, despite it not being designated as an official county evacuation center, Kelley said.

As for UndocuFund, the nonprofit was still in the beginning stages of collecting donations and determining how many people will need their services, said Omar Medina, the fund’s coordinator and a Santa Rosa Schools District board member. After the Tubbs fire, the group collected roughly $6 million for undocumented families, he said. So far the group has raised about $89,000 in relief funds for the Kincade fire, Medina said.

The resource is especially important for undocumented workers in Sonoma County, who do not qualify for statewide unemployment insurance benefits, Medina said.

“It’s such a privilege to have a Social Security card and to have protections,” Lubin said.

Gregorio Alvarez de Jesús, 32, said he used the emergency funds from Healdsburg Corazón, about $500, to pay for food and gas for him and nine other relatives and friends who had evacuated their homes last week. The group arrived at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair on Sunday with only a few cans of food and few blankets after moving between different locations.

Strangers gifted the group blankets and a camping tent after seeing Alvarez de Jesús and some of the other men were sleeping under his truck. There wasn’t enough room for everyone in the car, Alvarez de Jesús said. On Thursday he was back in his Healdsburg home and asking friends and family to loan him some cash to cover rent and other bills, he said. The vineyard where he works told him to come in on Monday, Alvarez de Jesús said.

“I’d like to at least replenish what we lost while we were evacuated,” Alvarez de Jesús said. “I lost a week’s worth of work and I was moving around a lot in my truck.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or

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