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Special Coverage

Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here

Michelle Trammell and her nearest neighbors can’t go home. They can visit home, but not live there.

Several times a week, Trammell, who’s 52, lets herself in through the chained gate at what remains of Journey’s End, the north Santa Rosa mobile home park that was mostly leveled by the Tubbs fire.

She looks about to see what more has been looted from her yard and those of her neighbors. Then she unlocks the door of the aged mobile home that she shared with her mother, 72-year-old Rachael Crawford, until that morning last October.

Once inside her coach, Trammell putters. “It just makes me feel like I’m home when I’m there,” she said.

She puts out food for the cats that reside still among the 44 coaches that she and her boyfriend and a small team of genuinely heroic neighbors and firefighters saved — and as a result are credited with halting the fire’s spread toward the neighboring Kaiser Permanente campus.

Also on her sojourns home, said Trammell, “I sit on the couch, listen to the radio. I say, ‘I know I could be living here right now.’ It’s sad that we’re never going to live there again.”

44 mobile homes empty

Though her simple but beloved residence survived the firestorm, there is no escaping the peculiar, deeply layered conundrum that agonizes her and the other people who lived at the affordable and for the most part happy oasis that was the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park.

Help has come to many of them, and they are openly grateful. But varying shades of misery are endemic to the scattered former Journey’s End residents who lived in one of the 117 homes that burned or one of the 44 that can’t be reoccupied because the 13.5-acre park is shut down.

“It’s like we’ve been abandoned,” said Theresa Udall, who is 84 and had lived 14 years in a mobile home that survived the fire but can’t currently be lived in.

“All of my life savings went into it.”

The Tubbs fire killed two Journey’s End residents, incinerated its electrical and gas systems and irreparably contaminated the well supplying water to the community. In February, Ramsey Shuayto, a co-owner from the family that owns the site, at Mendocino Avenue and Fountaingrove Parkway, told residents they would work with nonprofit Burbank Housing to explore the feasibility of redeveloping the property into a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments — long-term plans that have many fire survivors in a state of limbo.

Most are seniors, they aren’t well off and they planned to live out their lives at the park because they liked it and, with monthly space rents of about $500, it was one of precious few places in Sonoma County they could afford.

Louise Smith had lived since 1980 in a Journey’s End mobile home that survived the fire but is off limits to her.

Today Smith is sharing a Rohnert Park apartment with a nephew and his wife, and she has no idea if she’ll ever be able to once again live independently.

“It’s a hell of a mess,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m 85 and it’s really irritating.”

‘Can’t start over’

The bind that entangles her and her 30-some neighbors whose homes still stand is that their insurance companies won’t pay for residences that didn’t burn, but the coaches can’t be inhabited in a shut-down park and they most likely can’t be moved.

Special Coverage

Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here

Inger Simonsen at first thought it a miracle that her home on the southern end of the park’s Sahara Street was saved.

“But as time went on it was like the biggest nightmare that never ends,” she said.

Simonsen, 72, had expected to live out her life at Journey’s End.

“I really loved it. I loved my little house that I had made the way I wanted it. I had really good neighbors. I felt safe and secure.”

But today she still owes $20,000 on a home she can’t live in and almost certainly can’t afford to move. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

A year after the fires, many don’t know how or where in the world they will continue on.

“Pretty soon you won’t have anyone poor living in Santa Rosa,” said Robert “Priest” Morgan.

A former renter at Journey’s End, Morgan took up a fire hose last October and with four firefighters took a stand between the wind-crazed inferno and the homes at the park’s south end — and, beyond that, the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center.

Several former residents of the mobile homes Morgan helped to save have told him, thanks, but they’d probably be better off had they burned.

“All of us are so stressed out,” said 82-year-old Dorothy Hughes, who at the time of the fire was adjusting to the death eight months earlier of her husband of 59 years, Albert.

“We’re old, we can’t start over like young people,” Hughes said.

Her mobile home, not far from Trammell’s, was not destroyed but she can’t live in it and can’t afford to move it or to purchase another coach elsewhere. Echoing a common grievance among evacuees of Journey’s End, Hughes said one of the worst parts of the limbo is the not knowing.

Will the park owner assist her? Are she and her former neighbors likely ever to live again on the nearly 14 acres that for decades was Journey’s End?

“We’ve just been kept in the dark,” Hughes said.

Senior apartments

At Burbank Housing, the nonprofit which has partnered with Journey’s End owners to redevelop the land with 500 low-income and market-rate apartments, spokeswoman Laurie Lynn Hogan said, “The frustration you’re hearing is the frustration we share.”

Hogan said it’s true that former park residents have received little information about what assistance they can expect from Burbank Housing and the landowners.

“It’s a roaring silence, a deafening silence,” she said.

But, she added, “It’s not a lack of sharing of information. It’s a lack of information to share.”

Hogan said the shuttering of a mobile home park because of fire damage is so unusual that affordable housing law offers little guidance regarding the responsibility of the Journey’s End owners or Burbank Housing to relocate the displaced residents.

The new partnership is waiting for state and federal officials to lay out what must be done for those former Journey’s End residents whose homes burned, or for those whose homes were saved, Hogan said.

She acknowledged, “That’s not helpful when your coach didn’t burn down and you can’t live in it and you’re still paying a mortgage on it.”

Hogan said the vision for new development at Journey’s End includes multi-level, senior apartments and also market-rate apartments. Burbank Housing would build the senior units and a partner would build the others.

No insurance coverage

At this point, no builder has stepped forward to take on the market-rate portion of the envisioned development.

Essential to the vision for the successor community to Journey’s End is the promise that residents displaced by the Tubbs fire will receive priority as tenants.

“They get first pick,” Hogan said. But when those apartments might be built is impossible to say.

“As you know,” Hogan said, “development takes a long, long time.”

Udall, like Trammell, goes often to her undamaged home at Journey’s End. But she can’t help but doubt that she and many of her former neighbors will ever accept the keys to new apartments on the site.

“We’ll have a mansion in the sky before they’re built,” she said.

Udall is among the former park residents who’ve gone to Legal Aid of Sonoma County for help navigating the legal maze. A common obstacle is the refusal by insurance companies to enter into pay-off negotiations with those seniors who didn’t lose their mobile homes but can’t live in them or move them.

“Those are the folks who are having the worst time with their insurance companies,” said Legal Aid chief Ronit Rubinoff. “We think this is the ultimate act of bad faith.”

Rubinoff said one position of the insurance companies is that they aren’t responsible for assisting their Journey’s End clients whose homes still stand because the park was shut down by government action. Legal Aid maintains that fire damage closed the park.

Rubinoff said her agency is trying to persuade the insurance companies to help out the owners of mobile homes not destroyed last year. Many of those people “are teetering on homelessness,” she said.

If the insurance companies don’t start talking with those policy holders, Rubinoff said, Legal Aid and a private law firm will file suit.

She added that her agency stands ready to accompany and advocate for low-income fire survivors who prepare for mediation with their insurance companies.

Buddhists help out

Several ex-Journey’s End residents sing the praises of Kendall Jarvis, the Legal Aid attorney who’s advocating for them. They’re also largely positive about the aid they’ve received from the international Buddhist relief agency, the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Staffers from its regional office in San Jose came to Sonoma County shortly after the fires broke out, pitching in with meals, beds and other disaster assistance. The Tzu Chi Foundation, one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations, looked into purchasing or leasing the Journey’s End property, restoring it as a mobile home park and purchasing coaches for all residents who lost theirs to the fire.

“Plan A didn’t work,” said Jenny Yao, leader of the Tzu Chi long-term recovery team in Santa Rosa.

Instead, Tzu Chi assumed responsibility for acting as case managers for former Journey’s End residents.

Workers with the foundation provide money to those seniors in need of help with housing, health or other expenses, and also advocate for them and refer them to counseling and other services.

Yao has seen what the fire and the ensuing housing and financial crisis has done to many of the former neighbors.

“We saw a lot of depression,” she said.

Those who have received help say they appreciate it, but they can’t help but feel that so far the great recovery from the firestorms of 2017 has passed them by.

Simonsen, who loved Journey’s End and the home that was saved but is off-limits, has a plea.

“We need not to be forgotten.”

You can reach Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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