After a California Wildfire, New and Old Homeless Populations Collide


Even before the first flames of the Camp Fire ignited, there was already a state of emergency in the wooded hills and farmlands north of Sacramento.

The homeless situation in parts of Butte County was so bad that the county formally declared a crisis in October in order to secure millions of dollars in state aid.

And then came the fire, destroying nearly 14,000 residences and adding an entirely new population of tens of thousands of people to California’s long-entrenched homeless crisis.

“It was already a pretty dire situation,” said Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center in Chico, one of a handful of primary homeless shelters in the county.

In the post-fire reality, after 52,000 people were evacuated, the number looking for some place to live has grown exponentially almost overnight.

“If they end up in the county and need homes,” Cootsona added, “that’s just the largest disaster you can imagine.”

Now, almost a month after the fire erupted, with the weather worsening and evacuation shelters closing or relocating farther away, tensions are growing between those who were already homeless and the newly homeless, as each group reaches for the other’s resources.

Local providers of shelter and aid are bracing for an influx of new people in need, putting even more pressure on the shelter system and forcing difficult decisions about who should get priority for limited space.

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