Emergency disaster relief still in demand after October fires
Nine months after fires ravaged Sonoma County, hundreds of people still line up each week, seeking assistance from an emergency food distribution program supported by the region's largest food bank.
Ripple effects from the fires forced the Redwood Empire Food Bank to stretch its resources with its Station 3990 program — a network of mobile, drive-through distribution centers held 12 times a week across seven cities. Since the first center opened outside the food bank Oct. 14, the program has doled out $4 million in food, serving 28,000 households and 110,000 individuals, according to data from the nonprofit.
And, the need isn't going away, though the organization is strapped for volunteers and has seen as much as a 20 percent increase in demand for some programs, said Director of Programs Allison Goodwin.
In the early days of the disaster, food was provided to 1,200 households weekly. Now, 500 households still seek help each week, and it's not clear how the fires will impact hunger long term, she said.
'We thought we'd have some sort of robust immediate need. We weren't really sure what the ongoing need would be,' she said. 'The reality is yes, there's an ongoing need … we would have expected it to drop off a little more dramatically than it did. It continues to be robust, week after week.'
The effort isn't the only emergency program that's extended beyond early days of the fire. Others include Sonoma Family Meal, which formed Oct. 14 to feed fire victims, and a Catholic Charities program to connect those impacted by blazes to vital resources. A so-called second wave of victims — those who deferred seeking help but now find they have no other choice — also are emerging, nonprofit leaders say.
The program cost the food bank $1.1 million between October and April, CEO David Goodman said. The organization's annual budget is $8.5 million, he said.
Early on, donors were told their dollars would be used to help direct victims, but also the broader community struggling from lost work hours, feeding and housing displaced people or those otherwise in need.
'We will feed people that are impacted by the fire, that's what Station 3990 is going for – that's the purpose of the program,' Goodman said. 'We can also tell you other people will be helped at the same time … when people show up and we say 'no that's not for you, you go away hungry,' it's an untenable situation. We would never do that.'
In January, food bank leaders will determine the program's future, he said. Goodman compared the fire to the recession — a life-changing event robbing many of perceived security.
'In the blink of an eye — from 10 p.m. to midnight in October, suddenly people went from never needing help to needing help,' he said. 'The same holds true for when you walk into an office and get laid off in the blink of an eye or if you fall from a ladder and you're incapable of helping yourself.'
Under the shade of leafy trees at Santa Rosa's Martin Luther King Jr. Park Thursday afternoon, more than 100 people received food from the program, including bright orange carrots, frozen chickens, rice, beans and cans of soup. The walk-up site opened just three weeks ago because of the need in the area, which is near a compound of FEMA disaster trailers housing fire victims at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Among the recipients was Veronica Vasquez, who rents a nearby two-bedroom apartment. The fires took her job at Kmart. Her daughter, son-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter were displaced when the Fountaingrove home where they lived with family was destroyed.
Vasquez took in the trio, cramming eight people into her home, where the monthly rent increased $200 after the fires. She's worked for the past six months cleaning at J.C. Penney, but she doesn't have many hours, she said through a translator.
The free food has helped make three to four meals a week, a much-needed boost in what seems like a hopeless time, she said.
'It helps that I'm able to save money to pay rent, to pay other utilities,' said Vasquez, 42.
The effort is powered by volunteers, like Jorge Bahena, who has spent about three months with the food bank.
'Instead of wasting my time on something else, I help people get food,' he said.
In the early days of the fire, as many as 6,000 people volunteered, Goodman said. By April, it dwindled to 1,700.
There are typical annual dips in volunteerism, but at this point, staff are asked to pitch in because of a lack of resources.
Meanwhile, Sonoma Family Meal still is serving 70 families who lost homes, founding board member Landon McPherson said.
Chefs prepare four meals that are packaged by about 40 volunteers and picked up by recipients each Monday, he said.
The program, led by Press Democrat food writer Heather Irwin, has cost $56,000, McPherson said. He said he expects the program's cost to grow $100,000 to serve 100 families through the year.
'We sat down by the end of October or the beginning of November and had a heart to heart (about the future) — there's a long-term need for this,' he said, adding that the nonprofit took a brief break.
'You hear others voicing their opinions and saying 'the fires were nine months ago, haven't you moved on?' No, we haven't because people are still sifting through the ashes … this program isn't going away anytime soon.'
At Santa Rosa's Catholic Charities, a weekly workshop aimed at connecting people to existing resources, such as Cal Fresh or rental assistance, quickly became overwhelmed after the fires, Assistant Director Cynthia King said.
The workshop was intended for a maximum of 12 people a week, but the demand grew to 150 people post fire, she said.
Piggybacking on efforts at disaster relief centers, the nonprofit launched in late December a fire relief workshop on Wednesdays and eventually expanded it to Thursdays, King said.
The workshop has reached more than 700 households through June and it's still in demand, she said.
The nonprofit has spent about $1 million on fire relief, said Director of Advancement and Communication Angie Moeller.