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Housing California residents displaced by fires proves difficult

In the areas of California hit hard by recent wildfires, displaced residents are struggling to find shelter. In some of these places, like Chico, there was already a housing shortage even before the fires hit. What resources are available to help? Judy Woodruff speaks with Raquel Dillon of KQED for an update on the services being provided by FEMA and other organizations during the crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a very difficult Thanksgiving holiday in California for tens of thousands of residents there. While the fire in southern part of the state is said to be contained, there's fear that rain could lead to mudslides in the coming days.

    Meanwhile, in the northern part of the state, the Camp Fire is still not fully out, and it's left a burn scar, so to speak, that's larger than the city of San Jose.

    Many people are still stuck with temporary shelters and few housing options.

    Raquel Maria Dillon of public media KQED has been reporting from the area around Chico.

    And I spoke with her by phone just a short time ago. Started by asking what she's witnessed.

  • Raquel Maria Dillon:

    There's just so many of them.

    I think the folks who are worse off are stuck at this Wal-Mart parking lot in R.V.s or an empty field and tents. And when I left there earlier today, the rain was just beginning to come down for real, and it's a low-lying spot, and there's a lot of concern in the community for getting those folks out of there, or just helping them get through the bad weather.

    People are putting wooden pallets underneath the tents and getting tarps out. I got the sense that some of those folks were really living on the edge when they were back home in Paradise. One guy told me straight up he was homeless. Another gentleman was telling me about his asthma and his medical conditions, and he really shouldn't be sleeping out in a tent.

    But I will say, the vast majority of the evacuees are crashing with family or friends on couches, in people's R.V.s parked in driveways and other options like that, but people — families are split up, and it's a very stressful time and their situations will not last forever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, who is in charge of providing facilities for these people who don't have a home or a place to go anymore? I mean, is there a visible organized presence doing the organizing?

  • Raquel Maria Dillon:

    Yes, FEMA has opened up an old shuttered Sears department store. And people pick a number on the way in. They wait a little while. They get their numbers called and then they wait a long time again to connect to services.

    There's nonprofits there. It's mainly FEMA and the state office of emergency services. And there is aid available, but there just aren't enough homes, motel and hotel rooms to put up all the people who fled the fire.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you said people have to wait, that they come, and you said they take a number and then they wait.

  • Raquel Maria Dillon:

    Exactly.

    It's a bureaucracy. Some of the people I spoke with, you know, couldn't verify their addresses or didn't have the right paperwork. I spoke to one couple that had gotten a voucher going into a motel room, but they came back to tie up some other loose ends.

    They had forgotten their FEMA number and had to go back. And so it's a bureaucracy. And I think people who might be struggling with other issues might have a hard time navigating that bureaucracy and need a lot of help.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what's going to happen, Raquel, on Thanksgiving, tomorrow? Is there any — is there any hope for a better living situation by then, or are they — what's going to happen?

  • Raquel Maria Dillon:

    Well, the FEMA center will be open 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. tomorrow.

    There's a lot of organizations in town, in the town of Chico, that are hosting dinners and making sure that people are well-fed and taken care of on such an important holiday.

    But big picture is, Chico has a housing crisis. It's a city of 86,000 people that has poured out their generosity for these fire evacuees. But I found a report from last year that said the vacancy rate in Chico is 1.9 percent. And it might have even gone down further this year.

    So in terms of long-term futures for these people to stay, it's a real problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds like there's just no immediate housing solution for many of these people.

  • Raquel Maria Dillon:

    Correct.

    And some of my colleagues at KQED have done some interesting reporting about FEMA has 80 trailers at the McClellan Air Force Base right outside of Sacramento, but they are not designated for this particular emergency. It just takes a long time to find the right place to put them.

    You have to have sewer and electricity. And it has to be a environmentally sound place for housing for families. So that's a real challenge. And it's just moving a lot slower than anyone had thought.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A really, really tough situation.

    Raquel Maria Dillon with KQED, thank you very much.

  • Raquel Maria Dillon:

    Thank you.

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