‘We had somebody shooting up meth next to us.’ Camp Fire victims describe living in shelter
Camp Fire survivors Lisa Butcher and Randy Viehmeyer remember waking up one night to the screams of a nearby shelter resident reliving the nightmare of watching her dog burn alive.
Having bounced from one chaotic and sometimes dangerous shelter to another, the couple said they’ve experience a kind of volatile “hell” since their Paradise home burned down last November during the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
And with the final remaining evacuation shelter for victims set to close Thursday in Chico, their fate is once again up in the air.
At the first shelter where they stayed, the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley, Butcher contracted norovirus, along with dozens of others.
The first few nights in the Camp Fire shelter were a terrifying new experience: Viehmeyer recalled being suspicious of a woman who arrived at the Gridley shelter with a filled shopping cart. “I’m pretty sure she didn’t push that shopping cart down from Paradise,” he remarked.
He said she replied, “Anybody who even looks at my shopping cart, I’ve got something sharp for them.”
“They got rid of her right away,” Butcher said.
But other crime and dangerous activity continued, they said. Locals who were homeless before the fire, some with mental health or drug abuse issues and looking to get access to donated goods, repeatedly stole cellphones and other valuables, according to several displaced residents.
“We had to take turns when we went to the bathroom,” Viehmeyer said, worried about the few personal possessions they still owned. Medication and medical equipment, he said, were frequently stolen items, given the large number of elderly and disabled residents displaced by the fire.
“It’s bad enough Camp Fire victims lost everything, but now they’re getting preyed upon by transients and criminals,” Viehmeyer said.
They eventually moved to the Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fair Ground in Chico, the last official Camp Fire recovery shelter, but sanitary and safety concerns persisted – hypodermic needles on the ground, feces in the showers, the two said. When they were able to borrow an RV from a friend and move out of the dormitory-style shelter and into the parking lot, it felt like a small blessing.
Still, only a few safety concerns have been reported to the California Highway Patrol, which has jurisdiction over the state property. According to spokesman Officer Logan Callahan, there have been six physical-related arrests at the Chico shelter, most for public drunkenness, and one citation for possession of a controlled substance.
Three complaints have also been submitted to the District Attorney’s Office for cases of domestic violence, petty theft and battery. Callahan added that the private security company hired by the fairgrounds may also be resolving issues without involving law enforcement.
Red Cross spokeswoman Cindy Huge declined to comment on sanitary or safety issues, and urged residents to submit complaints to the relief organization’s officials to review and address.
“I feel like I am at a homeless shelter,” Viehmeyer said on a recent Thursday. “We wouldn’t have come here if we didn’t have any other place to go. There’s nothing to rent. There’s no motels, no rooms, no garage. We had no other choice.”
Struggle for normalcy
Butcher and Viehmeyer’s experience reflects that of many displaced residents from the Paradise area who lost their homes and struggle to return to normalcy after being thrown into a vortex of poverty, homelessness and bureaucracy.
More than 50,000 people were evacuated by the Camp Fire, Butte County officials previously estimated, with thousands forced into various Red Cross shelters throughout the county.
Nearly three months later, at Chico’s Silver Dollar Fair Ground, about 100 people still live indoors at the shelter, and about 470 people live in cars and trailers in the parking lot, according to Red Cross spokesman Steve Walsh.
Officials don’t have an estimate of how many people receiving services at the fairgrounds are former residents of Paradise, Magalia and Concow who lost their home in the fire, said Butte County spokeswoman Casey Hatcher.
Although the state granted a lease extension through mid-March, the fairgrounds will close to the vast majority of inhabitants on Thursday, Hatcher said. Once everyone has been cleared out, those with newer RVs or trailers may stay on the property, for $40 a night.
“We recognize from the homeless crisis that a sheer number of displaced people puts pressure on already existing resources,” Hatcher said. “We know that living in a shelter long-term in a congregated setting isn’t ideal, which is why we’re trying to help people find their next step.”
Case managers with the Red Cross are assisting remaining shelter inhabitants with “recovery plans” – helping them “remove the barriers” to leaving the shelter, such as new tires for their car, gas money, cash to make a deposit on rent or securing FEMA assistance.
In advance of Thursday’s planned closure, 61 people were issued notices last weekend to leave the fairgrounds within 48 hours, after Red Cross officials deemed them sufficiently ready to enact their recovery plan with a case manager – or having failed to show up to case manager meetings. Of those who received notices, 39 remained Monday anyway, Walsh said.
“There’s no kicking people out,” Walsh said. “(We’re) making sure they do have a place to go ultimately after providing options, and I’m sure sometimes it’s not what they want, or not local, but these are challenging, very tough times.”
“We cannot house them forever. We’re a disaster recovery shelter, not a homeless shelter.”
But FEMA assistance, rent money or insurance payouts can be of little use to victims if there are no housing units available, either for sale or for rent, in the region. And for those still searching for pets, as Butcher and Viehmeyer are, or planning to rebuild, moving far away isn’t an option.
“We’re not done yet,” Viehmeyer said.
Tight housing market
Even before the Camp Fire, the region’s housing market was tight, with a low vacancy rate that made it difficult for low-income residents to find housing, according to Sarah Thomas, a program manager at Chico Housing Action Team, or CHAT, a local nonprofit that works to house the homeless.
“If you’re on Social Security and make $900 a month, you simply cannot rent anything on your own, and if you have credit problems or can’t put down a deposit, you can’t get into anything,” she said.
Thomas warned of the fire’s ripple effects, making an already understocked market even more impenetrable: One landlord whose home was in the CHAT program had a family member displaced by the fire, Thomas said.
“She’s a lovely landlord, (but) she asked us to find another place for the residents so her family could live in the rental, and then we ended up with four displaced people,” Thomas said.
Prices in the area have already soared, as have rents – so much so that the Chico City Council passed an urgency ordinance banning landlords from increasing rents more than 10 percent over the next six months after an emergency is declared.
Torres Community Shelter, Chico’s largest homeless shelter, had 30 to 40 beds available as of Monday, according to Torres shelter monitor Cheryl Benge.
The shelter had been expecting an influx of Silver Dollar occupants. “We thought we were going to get them all this week (but) we won’t have to see them any time soon” because of the mid-March extension, Benge said.
Red Cross and Butte County officials have confirmed, however, that the extension is only a contingency plan, and that most occupants will no longer be in the shelter come Thursday.
Butte County’s most recent point-in-time survey identified at least 1,900 homeless individuals. After years of decreases, Sonoma County officials pointed to the devastating October 2018 wildfires as a cause for a 6 percent bump in homelessness in the county within one year.
Thomas expects CHAT may soon have to expand into Oroville to keep up with the demand. Walmart recently earmarked a $1 million donation to local organizations Jesus Center and Safe Space Winter Shelter to secure more beds, though Thomas said they have yet to find an appropriate space.
“We can get into this thing of the ‘good homeless’ and the ‘bad homeless’ and that’s not useful,” Thomas said. Whether those in need were unsheltered before the Camp Fire, or are experiencing homelessness for the first time, it comes down to the same number of resources for more people.
“We all are anticipating it’ll be a pretty rough transition,” she said.
Playing it by ear
Larry and Christine Smith have agreed that at this point, it’s best to play it by ear and stay on their toes. The divorced pair have been sharing a newly purchased RV for the last month at the Silver Dollar Fair Ground after the fire torched both their homes.
Having been “treated like transients,” Larry Smith said, they take the information and resources they can get with a grain of salt. “We talked to the case manager and stuff, but they don’t know half the time the answer,” he said.
They are among the few who plan to stay at the fairgrounds in their RV after Thursday, paying the daily fee. “That’s what we have to do because we don’t have anywhere else to go,” Christine Smith said.
Months later, the trauma still hurts. She said she has nightmares every night.
“I’ve been poor all my life, and I finally built a life for myself, and now all my stuff is gone,” she said, choking up.
Christine Smith has lived in Paradise since she was 6 years old. In the mud that makes up the remains of her house, she hopes to find her mother’s wedding ring. She’s also looking for her cats.
Once they get the all-clear, the pair plan to move their motor home to one of their properties, and then rebuild.
Last week, Butcher and Viehmeyer drove their borrowed RV back up to Gridley, having secured a coveted trailer spot at the fairgrounds. Like Christine Smith, Butcher is haunted by the things she’ll never get back.
“It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up, is my big pink baby book,” she said. All that’s left of her beloved family photo albums are the twisted metal spines, which she keeps in a plastic bag under the trailer.
She and Viehmeyer make a point of visiting their former home frequently, just off Pentz Road. Their house was one of the few that did not survive the fire along the quiet lane. They’re still looking for Butcher’s family’s cat, sifting through the property, and feeding the nearby wildlife.
“I’ve been here at night. It just feels very, very eerie. It just feels like a dead planet,” Viehmeyer said.
But here in the daylight, a family of squirrels happily munches on the handful of peanuts he’s tossed them, and a Steller’s jay begins to sing.
Before the fire, Butcher and Viehmeyer had planned to travel the country in their now scorched-out van. They don’t know if their family will rebuild. But they do know they need to stay near Paradise a little longer — the animals need someone to look after them.