Hundreds in need of financial help due to storms seek assistance from new Sonoma County program
Roberto Levaro Estrada, of Healdsburg, arrived about 9 a.m. Monday at the Healdsburg Community Center, hoping for help.
He hasn’t been able to work for almost a month – restricted from doing his landscaping job due to flooding caused by the recent onslaught of storms that have raged across the North Bay for more than three weeks.
Even though he arrived about two hours before the center opened its doors, there were already many people waiting.
When he finally got up to the check-in desk, he was given a number: 46.
He was one of more than 320 applicants who went to one of two support centers to obtain financial help through a first-of-its-kind cash assistance program launched Sunday by Sonoma County officials to help the county’s most vulnerable residents recover some of their more immediate losses following the storms.
Stationed out of locations in Healdsburg and Guerneville, the pilot program offers nominal financial assistance to county residents who suffered economic setbacks during the storms, such as lost wages because they couldn’t get to work due to road or business closures, as well as the costs of purchasing fuel, water or replacing spoiled food lost because of power outages.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the lower Russian River region, said Monday that the county is supporting the program with approximately $300,000 in emergency funding, which was taken out of the $2 million Hopkins requested last year during budget hearings to start a Community Disaster Immediate Needs fund.
The program is meant to address the needs of the county’s citizens on an individual level before the money from the state arrives to help with bigger-picture problems such as infrastructure damage, which sometimes comes in too late, Hopkins said.
“What matters is not the scale of the disaster, but the scale of the impact on an individual life,” she said.
Residents interested in obtaining financial help are encouraged to call 211, a preexisting line for assistance, to receive information about eligibility and current services offered at each location. Then, the interested parties are directed to one of the centers at the Healdsburg Community Center or the West County Health Centers in Guerneville.
There will be a third center opening Saturday in TImber Cove. The time and exact location are still being determined.
At the support centers, which will be open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Wednesday, applicants go through intake and an official eligibility screening for financial compensation.
The Healdsburg center, which opened for the first time at 11 a.m. Monday, is where Levaro Estrada and more than 260 others sought help.
By about 1 p.m., more than 120 potential applicants waited to speak with representatives and see if they qualified for the money they need to recover and to receive certain goods, such as a blanket, portable charger, apples, shovels and diapers provided by local nonprofits.
All of the hopeful residents spread out across the open-air facility in Healdsburg Monday afternoon, sitting in circles, using the provided fold-up chairs or standing out in the sun as the time passed and the wind whipped through the area.
Joana Mendoza, a farmworker who resides in Santa Rosa, brought her 2-year-old daughter with her Monday. She said she too had not been able to work since the storms began.
“I have been without a job for one month,” she said, adding that the fields she typically works in were flooded.
“I can’t pay my rent or my bills,” she added.
She had tried to seek help at other organizations but had come up short. The county’s pilot program, she said, was her only option.
She does not know when she can return to work.
Most of the people that came through the center Monday had experiences similar to Mendoza’s and Levaro Estrada’s, said Melissa Hernandez, community outreach specialist with Nuestra Comunidad.
The majority of those who showed up at the center on Monday were Spanish-speaking farmworkers who were unable to earn wages during storms.
Hernandez, who worked the check-in desk Monday morning, said she talked to a few people that took the day off of work to get help.
“Even though we’re open until like 7, some of them might have to spend the whole day here to be able to get the services,” she said Monday afternoon. “They know that if they come in later, they may not be able to access the services.”
By the end of the day, the center was able to do intake for and provide some assistance to 215 applicants.
Fifty people that arrived after 5 p.m. were pre-assigned a number for them to be served on Tuesday.
Residents deemed eligible after the screening are not receiving funds immediately, officials said.
They will be distributed at a later date by community-based organizations that are a part of Sonoma County Community Organizations Active in Disaster. Major partners include River to Coast Children’s Services, West County Community Services, Nuestra Comunidad, Corazón Healdsburg and Catholic Charities.
The date of distribution was not readily available.
Supervisor Hopkins said the organizations are working as fast as possible to distribute financial assistance because they know that people need the money as soon as possible.
“It’s very difficult to recover from unexpected loss of income and so our goal is to help folks get back on their feet and help stabilize their household,” she said.
About 100 people showed up at the Guerneville location on Sunday, the first day it opened, Hopkins said.
Among those who showed up, some requested help removing hazardous waste from around their properties. County officials said they are working on when debris removal will take place, Hopkins said.
The most pervasive problem, though, is financial loss, just like in Healdsburg.
Levaro Entrada said he had to stay indoors for much of the storm, taking care of his 16-, 14- and 11-year-old kids.
Now that they are at school, he can go out and seek assistance, but he said he is afraid he won’t qualify for enough to cover two months of rent and bills. He needs at least $1,200 for rent.
“We don’t know what will happen if we can’t pay,” he said.
Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report.
You can reach Staff Writer Madison Smalstig at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @madi.smals.