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Camp Fire Worsens Northern California's Housing Crisis


There was already a housing crisis in Northern California, and the wildfires there have made it worse. After the deadly Camp Fire this month, FEMA says more than 17,000 people have applied for housing assistance. Many evacuees say they are struggling to find safe, affordable places to live. There aren't enough apartments or motel rooms to go around. Hundreds of them are just living on the streets. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Dawn Burton fled the Paradise Fire more than two weeks ago after it destroyed the home she owned. I find her curled up under the camper shell of her pickup truck with her dogs and cats. She's parked at a Red Cross shelter searching her computer for someplace to go.

DAWN BURTON: We've been working on it nonstop, but there is no housing here. There's no housing. The government's got to do something.

MANN: California already faced a housing shortage before wildfires and mudslides devastated whole communities. Officials say the Camp Fire destroyed or heavily damaged more than 14,000 homes and apartment buildings. Burton says she feels trapped while waiting to hear from FEMA.

BURTON: There's just no place to go, you know? No place at all - except for places I can't afford, like Silicon Valley and Sacramento and LA and San Diego. And so I'm - we're kind of stuck. But we're working on it. We're trying.

MANN: FEMA is here offering vouchers and other financial aid. Spokeswoman Jovana Garcia says housing trailers have begun to arrive.

JOVANA GARCIA: You know, we have the mobile homes that has come in, which is about 80 of them. And 80 sounds like a small number compared to the amount of survivors that we have, but it's a start.

MANN: FEMA's working with the state and local task force trying to place as many families as possible in temporary housing. But a lot of people here say they're confused and frustrated.

DAN COLLIS: Right now, I'm staying at the University Inn. It's not much of a hotel, but it's warm.

MANN: Dan Collis (ph) owns several houses in Paradise and says one of them might still be standing. As the days go by, he and his neighbors are growing impatient. They want more information. They want to know when they can go back to see what's left.

COLLIS: What everybody is having a problem with is nobody sharing anything about when. Give us something.

MANN: With few affordable options, a homeless camp formed here in Chico, Calif., on an empty lot owned by Walmart. Tamela Morgan (ph), who rented a trailer in Paradise, sits now outside a tent she shares with her boyfriend. She says FEMA offered her a voucher, but she couldn't find a place to spend it.

TAMELA MORGAN: The hotels are - all of them are - most of them are booked, so you've got to kind of find an opening, you know?

MANN: I meet Marin Hambley (ph), who was an affordable housing activist before this disaster. She's here volunteering, helping keep people warm and fed. She says homelessness has to be a higher priority nationwide as hurricanes and floods and fires displace more families.

MARIN HAMBLEY: You know, we're trying to pressure the city and pressure the state and pressure the country to really change that approach, right? Because these folks have nowhere else to go.

MANN: For most of the families who fled the Camp Fire, getting home will be a slow process. But I do meet people beginning the journey.

MORGAN: I have hopeful thoughts today. I have a place to go.

MANN: The home Tamela Morgan rented in Paradise was destroyed by the fire. She barely got out alive. But when I meet her at a shelter run by a church in Chico, she's smiling.

MORGAN: A friend of mine said they got back into their home, and they said, we have a room for you.

MANN: Congratulations.

MORGAN: I know. I'm very happy. I'm very happy. I'm going home (laughter) to my friend's house.

MANN: She lost everything. She's wearing donated clothes. But on this night, she'll sleep in a real bed in a place she feels safe and welcome. Thousands more are looking for the same.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOUNTAIN'S "TO BE MADE AS NEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.

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