Helping hands: Latino community rushed to support immigrants impacted by October’s wildfires

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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.

In the weeks before the fires, de La Cruz and immigration advocates were organizing meetings to educate immigrants about their rights and answer questions about President Donald Trump’s decision to phase out the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded from deportation young immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally as children. When families started seeing the National Guard at shelters, they started camping out on the Sonoma Coast.

So de La Cruz, who was stationed at the county’s emergency operations center, answering calls and disseminating emergency information, reached out to friends like Raizes Collective founder Lopez, who drove to Bodega Bay just after the fires erupted and forced families to flee.

“Almost every single encampment was taken by a family all along the coast up until Goat Rock,” she said.

Families had fled their homes with nothing except the clothes on their backs. In need of blankets, clothing, diapers and food for these families, Lopez put out calls for supplies on social media. She spent a week on the coast helping families with “whatever we could.”

Lopez, who launched the Raizes Collective three years ago to empower Latinos through art, culture and environmental education, said she could relate to the fear families faced. She was 7 when she and her family crossed into the U.S. illegally — getting caught and deported the first time. Although she and her family received amnesty, she said “seeing the tanks and military people totally triggered that for me.”

Addressing mental health

As the rebuilding effort slowly gets underway, Debbie Mason, CEO of Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County, worries about families’ long-term mental health needs. She said many families stop going to counseling, unable to pay reduced fees that can be as low as $5 a session.

“People are so financially strapped they’re not able to afford the low sliding scale fee,” she said.

Her organization supports agencies such as Alliance Medical Center, Pediatric Dental Surgery and Corazon Healdsburg, which set up a free store where families could “shop” for donated items to replace those lost in the fires. Healthcare Foundation also is heading the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, which has been organizing free counseling and therapeutic sessions. They’ll have some available in Spanish, she said, as the need remains high.

De Los Santos said he and his family now don’t talk about the night of the Tubbs fire. Six months later, it’s still too difficult.

They’re making the best living they can in a one-bedroom house a friend vacated so that de Los Santos, his wife, their 15-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter and her husband and two young children could have a roof over their heads. But they hope their landlord will rebuild their four-bedroom Hopper Avenue home so that they can one day return.

“We’re hopeful,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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