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It's slow work getting fire victims back to normal

More than a dozen community service agencies are working with the state Department of Human Services to conduct interviews that will bring help for victims of the September Almeda and Obenchain fires who are trying to get back to more normal living.

DHS is leading a multi-agency shelter transition team process, first developed by the Red Cross to get people out of large congregate areas such as the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, said Micha Goettl, DHS regional emergency coordinator whose work reaches from Douglas County south to the California border and areas east of the Cascades.

“Nobody has dealt with anything of this magnitude in Oregon, such a wide geographically affected area,” said Goettl. “There hasn’t been a sustained response necessary in Oregon. This is new territory for our people.”

Many of those in emergency shelters, primarily hotels, were displaced from manufactured homes in parks that were destroyed by the Sept. 8 inferno.

“We knew this was a vulnerable population. We knew this is a population that is going to struggle getting back on their feet. It’s really discouraging,” said Jackson County Emergency Center Director John Vial, when he briefed Phoenix City Council earlier this month.

“Many of them are fixed income. They cannot afford housing basically under any circumstance,” said Vial. “If we go back to the normal situation, they aren’t going to be able to afford rent almost anywhere, or they’re unemployed, or other circumstances which prevent transition from a hotel into a more stable housing environment.”

Interviewers seek to identify long-term goals and discover barriers to them, said Goettl. Depending on each situation, an appropriate agency will be brought in to participate. The interview can lead to referrals for assistance.

“They are baseline disaster case interviews. What we want to do is be able to interview anyone that is affected, whether they are in shelter or not,” said Goettl. “It still means they are in need.”

The population includes a lot of multigenerational and nontraditional families, with a number struggling around economic issues.

“Affordable housing is almost universally the biggest issue. The market was already tough, and then to take that many homes out of it, that’s especially damaging,” said Goettl. The individuals may also face significant challenges medically or socially, and time needs to be spent to understand their cases, he said.

DHS employee Silvia Ceron is heading the team in Jackson County with support for other DHS workers and the group representatives.

Partner agencies that have supported the effort by being present during interviews include All Care, Columbia Care, Southern Oregon University, Hearts with a Mission, Jackson County Mental Health, Legal Services, La Clinica Del Valle, ACCESS, St. Vincent de Paul, HUD, FEMA, Rogue Workforce, Jackson Care Connect and Options.

United Way of Jackson County sits in on weekly sessions where the interviews are reviewed, and the agency frequently takes on what it can to address needs, said Dee Anne Everson, executive director.

“It is always vital in these situations to get people moving forward. The MASTT is doing the work that is urgent and important. There aren’t easy answers,” said Everson. Many victims are in trauma after losses and experience mental health issues, she said.

Everson was able Thursday to arrange moving a large propane tank that a fire victim needs for the RV she is living in after losing her home. Just removing a large headache from a person’s day is helpful, said Everson.

About one-third of the interviews are conducted in Spanish. Most interviews are done virtually using smartphones, tablets or computers to reduce in-person interactions during the pandemic. When virtual interviews cannot be done, arrangements are made to use conference rooms at the hotels. Most interviews run about 45 minutes.

About 40% of the planned interviews have been conducted since they started in December. The process is taking longer than envisioned, said Goettl, but he hopes they will finish by the end of April.

Fire victims housed in hotels have increased since December when they hit a low point of around 400. On Tuesday there were 624. It had been in the high 500s the previous week.

Individuals have been sitting in hotels for weeks and getting meals, but they need to be able to move forward, said Goettl. The agency is also working to feed others who may have shelter.

“Nobody wants to be sitting in a hotel treading water,” said Goettl. Most hotels don’t allow cooking, which can add to food insecurity, even though meals are being provided.

Goettl’s Tuesday did include a good-news story: One family checked out of a hotel and was going into long-term leased housing. But there aren’t a lot of places available like that one, Goettl said.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAlmeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix.