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Petaluma’s COTS sheltering fire victims

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Even as the Committee on the Shelterless ramps up its homeless services ahead of the busy winter season, the Petaluma nonprofit has taken on a new challenge — housing those recently made homeless by the Sonoma County wildfires.

The COTS Mary Isaak Center homeless shelter last week swelled with 10 new arrivals from Santa Rosa’s Finely Center, the last of the county’s emergency shelters to close. The fires that swept through Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley last month destroyed more than 5,000 homes and displaced several thousand residents.

Many temporary refugees were able to return home after mandatory evacuation orders were lifted. Others who lost homes in the fires have received state and federal assistance to find longer term housing while they rebuild.

But another significant portion of the population remains affected by the fires but is unable to obtain assistance and faces the prospect of a cold winter on the streets, said COTS CEO Mike Johnson.

“It’s really about what are we going to do in the long term to help the newly homeless from the fires,” Johnson said. “Those are the folks that end up falling through the cracks.”

Those most vulnerable, Johnson said, were people who were couch surfing or in informal rental agreements and were displaced by the fires. Others may not have lost homes, but lost jobs when businesses burned down and now they cannot afford their rent. Still others may have been homeless before the fires and were forced to flee camps as Santa Rosa burned.

Housing these fire victims at Petaluma’s shelter is the first step in what Johnson described as a long-term effort to find them permanent housing.

“No one who was displaced by this fire should end up on the streets,” he said.

COTS is hiring additional temporary staff to provide services to those displaced by the fire. Fire victims have access to three meals a day, shower and laundry facilities, storage for belongings and a medical clinic staffed by the Petaluma Health Center.

“We expect that this will put a strain on our facilities and staff,” Brian Bricker, COTS Chief Operating Officer, said in a statement. “But we are in a fortunate position. None of our facilities was damaged by the fire and none of our staff lost their homes. Our partner agencies were not so lucky.”

The housing facilities of Santa Rosa-based Interfaith Shelter Network, COTS’ partner agency, were damaged in the fires and COTS was already serving families from that shelter.

Johnson said the long-term impact of the fire disaster may not be felt for several years. During the mortgage crisis of 2008, for example, it took two years before Sonoma County experienced an increase in homelessness, and when it did, it increased by 40 percent, Johnson said.

“Disasters like this have unanticipated long-term consequences that aren’t seen for months or years down the road,” he said. “What you don’t want to do is forget that the long-term consequences will play out.”

Johnson said disasters like this affect low-income residents disproportionately, and he worries about victims looking for affordable housing in a region that was beset by a housing crisis even before the fires. Officials have yet to report what portion of the burned-out families were renters, but 4 in 10 county households overall were renting in 2015, according to U.S. Census data.

Real estate website Zillow reported a 36 percent jump in county median rents after the fire in a seven-day period ending Oct. 18.

Jock McNeill, president of Alliance Property Management in Santa Rosa said frustrations over the housing market could cause many workers to move away.

“Not only is the cost of living prohibitive,” he said. “Now, there’s nothing to choose from.”

(Press Democrat staff writer Robert Digitale contributed to this report. Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)