Helping hands: Latino community rushed to support immigrants impacted by October’s wildfires
Eminol de Los Santos and his family desperately needed assistance after October’s wildfires destroyed their Coffey Park rental home, cars and all their other belongings. Uneasy about seeking federal aid, he sought out support in the Latino community, which mobilized within hours after the fires erupted Oct. 8 to assist displaced immigrant families.
One of the first people he saw was Omar Medina, a man he recognized from four years earlier when Medina campaigned for the Santa Rosa City Schools board. He felt a wave of relief. “It was a blessing,” de Los Santos said of the comfort and support received from Medina, later named coordinator of the newly created UndocuFund, that provides financial assistance to undocumented families impacted by the fire.
Medina, along with community organizers like Raizes Collective founder Isabel Lopez and Alegria de La Cruz, chief deputy county counsel for Sonoma County, spent the critical days of the wildfires providing accurate details in Spanish on the fire locations and the evacuation orders, countering misinformation that was creating confusion and panic among the immigrant community. When the smoke cleared, and the community toll became visible, their focus shifted to getting families disaster relief.
While de Los Santos’ neighborhood of Coffey Park was leveled by flames, the domino effect of the fires on the Latino community was also profound: hundreds of landscapers, contractors and home care workers lost jobs at homes destroyed in Fountaingrove and elsewhere. Others found themselves facing eviction from their rented homes as landlords made them available to people they knew who were displaced by the fires. Suddenly, the Latino community needed basics such as shelter, food, clothing and financial aid for rent and security deposits.
It was a friend who referred him to Medina after seeing a Facebook post about UndocuFund, said de Los Santos, who first was greeted by Medina’s mom, Ana Mejia, when he stopped by their home in late November to apply for aid.
“She was just so kind,” de Los Santos said, surprised by the calm he felt.
Mejia, 63, who also housed families displaced by the fires, started volunteering with her son as soon as UndocuFund was launched.
“We need to help one another,” she said. It’s the only way the community will recover, she said.
De Los Santos said it was nothing like his experience with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials who had set up a hub in downtown Santa Rosa. He said the first thing they asked for was a Social Security number, so he and his family walked out. They later tried applying for federal aid after they heard they could do so through their U.S.-born children but were denied that over what de Los Santos said was an application error. They never appealed.
An effort launched by Graton Day Labor Center, North Bay Organizing Project and North Bay Jobs with Justice, UndocuFund has provided $4 million in aid to 1,400 undocumented families impacted by the fires, Medina said. Many people had skipped the FEMA line out of fear of deportation, he said.
“It’s justifiable given the climate that we’re in,” said Medina, who already had been working with undocumented immigrants through the North Bay Rapid Response Network of Sonoma and Napa counties, which mans a ?24-hour emergency hotline.
About a month after the firestorm wiped out 5,130 homes and killed 24 people in Sonoma County, Medina, 39, and other organizers held the first UndocuFund clinic at the Roseland Village Neighborhood Center on Sebastopol Road, where 115 families signed up for assistance.
‘A trusted source’
Four miles north, Anita Maldonado and her team at California Human Development had set up a wildfire relief and resource center after noticing families weren’t visiting the FEMA hub.
“They wanted to come to a trusted source,” said Maldonado, the nonprofit’s executive director.
So far, they’ve helped 1,200 families who lost homes or wages because of the fires with rental assistance, security deposits, utility bills and gift cards, said Jenna Brager, who oversees the relief center. Families still continue to trickle in seeking help, including mental health support. The nonprofit now is offering weekly grief and mental support groups at the facility off Airway Drive in Santa Rosa.
“We’re seeing a lot of impacts on emotional and mental health for our clients. There’s a lot of grief,” Brager said. “We have lots of clients who haven’t returned to stable housing or stable incomes.”
The fires shook the immigrant community, one that already had been on edge after increased immigration enforcement around the state and country.