ROC Sonoma County seeks to sustain aid for most vulnerable fire survivors
After October’s fires destroyed Michael Newton’s rented apartment near Coffey Park, he spent months in hotels, digging deep into his savings after fire relief funds ran dry.
In the preceding years, a heart defect had put his health at serious risk and forced him to leave his job at Home Depot in 2015, he said. He underwent surgery to get a defibrillator in 2016.
On Oct. 9, he escaped his home with only his phone, tablet, watch and wallet.
Newton, 58, who is unable to work, soon discovered he was underinsured. He landed in hotels in Santa Rosa and Alameda, but his disability ran out shortly after the fires, leaving him with no income. He received temporary FEMA funds for hotels and a smattering of checks from relief funds, but was then forced to spend most of his savings as he waited for Social Security benefits.
Things changed when he was connected this spring with Rebuilding Our Community Sonoma County, or ROC, a collaboration of more than 35 local nonprofits, government agencies, businesses and faith-based organizations working to provide long-term fire relief. It’s an effort to streamline assistance, offering a “one-stop shop” where case managers connect vulnerable fire survivors with a network of services, co-chair Jennielynn Holmes said.
Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul chipped in to pay for Newton’s security deposit and several months of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Rohnert Park, also providing furniture and other essentials, he said. He also received gift cards and legal assistance from other groups, he said.
“It changed my life — it took me from the bottom on up,” said Newton, who has lived in Sonoma County for 25 years.
ROC has provided referrals to services or is in the process of directly helping 800 households, or an estimated 2,000 people, focusing on assisting fire survivors who have “fallen through the cracks,” Holmes said. That includes people who lost homes who didn’t have insurance or were underinsured, those who didn’t qualify for federal aid, and displaced renters, she said.
“The benchmark is repositioning individuals affected by a disaster to where they were Oct. 7,” she said, adding that the effort could span three to five years.
ROC, which began with support from FEMA, Voluntary Organizations Active In Disaster and the state Office of Emergency Services, was recognized as a long-term relief organization by FEMA in December, Holmes said.
Using a data-sharing agreement with FEMA, case managers were able to contact many fire victims, Holmes said, and a resource center opened in July. An open house Friday will showcase the center’s services.
To start the process, a disaster case manager meets with each applicant to assess needs and to create a recovery plan.
“You’ve got an advocate and someone who’s educated on local and state resources who’s advocating and navigating on your behalf,” she said. “The really beautiful thing about what ROC can do is wrapping our work around the person rather than make the person wrap their mind around the way we work.”
The 11 case managers — positions funded through a $2.7 million FEMA grant — either refer people to services, or gather information to present the case to subcommittees of officials from local agencies, Holmes said. After hearing each case, officials create a plan for agencies to chip in to meet the needs, which could include rental or legal assistance, help finding a home or getting furniture and appealing denials for federal aid.
Fire survivors who still need help — like help covering the cost of rebuilding — are directed to a committee for unmet needs. The Community Foundation of Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund, which has raised $14 million for fire relief, has allocated $1 million this year to help the committee fund rebuilding efforts, while United Way has pledged $500,000, said Karin Demarest, the foundation’s vice president for programs.
Once the committee approves funding to help with rebuilding, Hope City, a faith-based Lake County organization that rebuilds homes for those who don’t have insurance or were underinsured, is poised to build homes using templates approved by the city and county, Holmes said.
Demarest praised the model of support.
“It’s really, really difficult work,” she said. “There’s such a small amount of funding for such a huge need. The Community Foundation helps support that. Most philanthropic dollars went out in the first phase — there’s very little left for the more complex and more expensive recovery and rebuilding phase. It’s really rolling up your sleeves and thinking of each of the individuals and how to help get them on a path to recovery to keep the community diverse.”