The Glass Fire burning in Northern California wine country has forced thousands from their homes, among them the residents of a tiny home village built to help people transition out of homelessness. For those who've spent years — or decades — on the streets, it's a traumatic displacement.
Carmen Almejo was homeless and lived in the woods for two years, but she'd never experienced a wildfire until this fall. "We were sitting there having coffee and then we could feel the fire and we could smell it so well," Almejo says of the Sunday night in late September when the fire started. "I knew we had to evacuate."
Almejo is one of the 60 residents of Los Guilicos Village, the first transitional shelter of its kind funded by Sonoma County.
"Unsheltered folks are used to being evacuated in one form or another," says Chris Grabill, director of housing and shelter services for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Sonoma County. He manages the village of tiny homes and led its evacuation. "But there's also a lot of trauma associated with that."
That made for some tense moments, Grabill says. "What I had to say to one woman who was really panicking and really struggles with mental illness was 'If you don't go, I have to stay and my little daughter will not have a father anymore.' And she immediately was like 'OK OK just give me 20 minutes.' I was like 'We don't have 20 minutes!'"
"We barely got out of there," Grabill says, but he and St. Vincent de Paul Executive Director Jack Tibbetts successfully evacuated all residents and staff that night.
Because so many Los Guilicos residents are elderly or have conditions like diabetes or lung disease, communal evacuation shelters presented too much risk of COVID-19 exposure. Instead, most of them ended up at the Sonoma County fairgrounds in tents and trailers.
A new temporary home
Carmen Almejo and her little dog Carmencita are adjusting to life in a trailer shared with two men who've been there since the spring, when California Governor Gavin Newsom provided the trailers as part of a statewide effort to tackle homelessness.
For 63-year-old Almejo, the running water, air conditioning and appliances still feel like luxuries. "I used to live underneath the bridge on 6th Street," she says.
She was on the streets for almost a decade and had only been living in her tiny home at Los Guilicos Village for two weeks when the fire came through. It destroyed four of the tiny houses and damaged another two.
By the time remediation is done it could be months before residents are allowed to return, says Tibbetts. In addition to running the local St. Vincent de Paul, he represents the district on the Santa Rosa city council in which the transitional housing village is located.
Los Guilicos Village was built in January to house some of the 300 people who'd been living in a homeless encampment razed when officials decided conditions — including a spate of assaults and an outbreak of trench foot — made it untenable.
Los Guilicos Village was the first tiny home shelter undertaken by the local government. "There's truly not been anything like it before," Tibbetts says "It was a long political fight years in the making."
For him, the results show it was the right call. Of 120 people who've lived at Los Guilicos Village since it opened early this year, about 30 of them were able to move into permanent supportive housing and almost as many were in the process of securing a more long-term housing solution.
Almejo was just starting to work with a case manager. That's now stalled due to the fire and displacement, but Tibbetts and Grabill are promising to get things back on track as soon as possible.
"These folks have voluntarily moved into this program because they want to have a better life," Tibbetts says. "It's incumbent upon us to make sure that in our policymaking process we don't abandon them."
In the short term, he and Grabill are working to bring in more trailers and get people sleeping in tents out of the heat and smoky air. They're hopeful everyone in the trailers will be able to stay put until a better option is available.
Still, Almejo worries the fire and her evacuation will endanger the progress she's made toward finding a permanent home. "Without having a place to rest your head or go to the bathroom, basic things, what do you have? I don't want to be there again," she says, and does her best to reassure herself, "It's gonna be OK."
For Almejo and many of the others, another displacement would just compound the recent trauma, Grabill says. "I will fight like hell for these people to be able to stay here as long as they need to after what they've been through," he says. "I hope we have the resources to follow through with that promise."
NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. Firefighters in northern California say they should be able to extinguish a wildfire in wine country in about a week - so some good news. That fire forced thousands of people out of their homes, including people who were living in Santa Rosa's first government-funded camp for homeless people. It gave people who'd spent many years on the streets real homes. Here's Vanessa Rancaño of member station KQED.
VANESSA RANCAÑO, BYLINE: A homeless resident recorded the evacuation on his phone in late September.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED LOS GUILICOS VILLAGE RESIDENT: ...Fire from Napa coming over the...
RANCAÑO: One of the evacuees was Carmen Almejo.
CARMEN ALMEJO: We were sitting having coffee, and we could feel the fire. And we could smell it so well.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED LOS GUILICOS VILLAGE RESIDENT: There's a fire coming up over the hill. It's glowing really bright red.
ALMEJO: So I know we had to evacuate. It's very scary. I never been in a fire like that.
RANCAÑO: Before the homeless camp, she lived in the woods for two years. Almejo is one of the 60 residents of Los Guilicos Village, a transitional shelter funded by the county. Chris Grabill manages the village of tiny homes. He's in charge of housing services for St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, and he led the evacuation.
CHRIS GRABILL: Unsheltered folks are used to being evacuated in one form or another, but there's also a lot of trauma from that.
RANCAÑO: He says that made for some tense moments.
GRABILL: What I had to say to one woman who was really panicking and really struggles with mental illness was, if you don't go, I have to stay, and my little daughter will not have a father anymore. She immediately was like, OK - OK, just give me 20 minutes. I was like, we don't have 20 minutes (laughter).
RANCAÑO: Grabill got everybody out of Los Guilicos Village, or LGV, that night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED LOS GUILICOS VILLAGE RESIDENT: We've been evacuated from the LGV, and we're now headed to fairgrounds.
RANCAÑO: Most Los Guilicos evacuees are still at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in tents and trailers. Carmen Almejo and her little dog, Carmencita, are adjusting to life in a trailer shared with two men.
ALMEJO: Come on. OK. I'll open it for you. Go on. Microwave and stove and the refrigerator and here are the two bunk beds.
RANCAÑO: All these appliances, the running water, air conditioning - they still feel like luxuries to 63-year-old Almejo.
ALMEJO: I used to live underneath the bridge at - on 6th Street.
RANCAÑO: She was on the streets for almost a decade. She'd only been living in her tiny home at Los Guilicos Village for two weeks when the fire came through. It destroyed four of the tiny houses and damaged another two. It could be months before residents are allowed to return.
ALMEJO: Without having a place, you know, to rest your head or go to the bathroom or basic things, what do you have, you know? And I don't want to be there again. I'm sure it's going to be OK.
RANCAÑO: For many of these people, another displacement would just compound the trauma, says shelter manager Chris Grabill.
GRABILL: I can tell you right now that I will fight like hell for these folks to be here as long as they need to be to be in a safe, comfortable living situation after what they've been through.
RANCAÑO: Of 120 people who've lived at Los Guilicos Village since it opened early this year, about 30 of them were able to move into permanent supportive housing. Almost as many were in the process of securing it. Almejo was just starting to work with a case manager. That's stalled for now. But she says she's grateful for the resources here at the fairgrounds, like the free vet services for her dog.
UNIDENTIFIED VETERINARIAN: I'm going to take her in and give her her pedicure. I'll bring her right back...
ALMEJO: OK. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.
UNIDENTIFIED VETERINARIAN: ...And bring her right back to you.
RANCAÑO: Because of the smoke and heat, Grabill wants to bring in more trailers and get people out of tents.
GRABILL: I hope that we have the resources to follow through with that promise.
RANCAÑO: And he hopes everyone in the trailers will be able to stay here until a better option is available.
For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Rancaño in Santa Rosa, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "RUNNING THROUGH WOODLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.