Deep in the Densely forested foothills of southern Oregon near the town of Butte Falls, Lanette and Steve Martin lived with their son and his family – until last year, when a wildfire chased them from their home . As embers the size of charcoal briquettes landed on their foredeck, the retired couple and their family jumped into their cars, leaving behind five chickens and a cat. âIf we had waited 10 more minutes we would have been engulfed in flames,â said Steve Martin.
On the same day, September 8, 2020, an urban fire fueled by hot, dry weather and high winds ravaged the nearby towns of Talent and Phoenix in the Rogue Valley. Alma Alvarez, a migrant worker, was working about 15 miles away when the fire started raging towards Phoenix, where her two youngest children, aged 10 and 13, were home alone. Alvarez rushed to find the neighborhood already ablaze. The family escaped with the children’s birth certificates and their cat, but everything else was gone. That night they slept in their car. “All we thought about was fire and if he could come and put us to sleep,” Alvarez said recently, speaking in Spanish. The following night, they moved into a hotel, the first in a long series where they would stay over the next few months.
âAll we thought about was fire and if he could come and put us to sleep. “
The conflagrations, part of what were later labeled Labor Day fires, killed three people and displaced an estimated 8,000 people in Jackson County, southern Oregon. In mid-April, after bouncing between temporary homes for more than seven months, Alvarez’s family and the Martins finally landed in one place: the Redwood Inn in Medford, Oregon. It was no coincidence. The motel is part of Project Turnkey, a $ 65 million statewide initiative to convert hotels and motels into free accommodations for survivors of the September 2020 fires as well as others without. shelter. For Alvarez and the Martins, Project Turnkey offered the stability they so badly needed – and a step towards a more permanent home.
LOCATED IN A PAST STREET lined with budget motels, the Redwood Inn is one of 20 motels Oregon plans to purchase by the end of June. Collectively, they could house up to 1,000 households. Project Turnkey is modeled on a similar program in California that started last summer. Cities and nonprofits have long rented hotel rooms for homeless people, but states buying hotels are something new, sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for shelters socially distant. Ernesto Fonseca, who heads Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC), an Oregon housing organization that serves Latin American communities, said supporting the Turnkey project was âa givenâ; it is a relatively quick and inexpensive way to provide emergency shelter and accommodation. “(But) it’s not a permanent solution either,” he said.
The state puts money in to buy the buildings, but local organizations have to manage them – and raise the funds to do so. Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit, and the city of Medford received $ 2.55 million to purchase the 47-unit Redwood Inn, which prioritizes wildfire survivors. Later, the motel will house members of the general homeless population, who will pay a small rent. But for now, local and state grants, along with reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), pay for the Redwood Inn’s estimated $ 91,000 monthly operational cost.
When the Martins pulled into the motel parking lot on April 12, they sighed in relief. As a handful of new residents lingered outside ready to move in, the Martins explained that their move-in date had been repeatedly delayed. Just that morning, the state had informed them that they could have one of the first eight rooms that were ready.
In the seating area of ââa makeshift lobby, staff at Rogue Retreat told them about a program that can connect residents with permanent housing, while noting that there is no time limit for their stay at the motel. Steve Martin looked on the verge of tears as he signed the documents: âOur next option was the back of my pickup,â he told staff.
“Our next option was the back of my pickup.”
The couple circulated a phone with pictures of their old home, a four-bedroom house that housed them, and their son’s family of three. Lanette Martin called her her “Shangri-La”. For five years, they were custodians of the 40-acre property, where their electricity came from solar panels and their water came from mountain springs. In return, the Martins – who live on a fixed income – paid just $ 700 a month in rent. Now the couple can’t even find a studio for that price: In 2020, rents and home values ââskyrocketed amid high demand driven by fires and an influx of arrivals out of the country. State during the pandemic. The Martins lived in the homes of several friends after the fires, but had to leave the last when it sold out in less than 24 hours – a typical occurrence these days in Jackson County, where Medford is located.
From 2013 to 2017, nearly a third of Jackson County residents were heavily impacted by rent, spending more than 50% of their monthly income on rent, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services. And that was before the September 2020 wildfires exacerbated the county’s already acute shortage of affordable housing. Of the nearly 2,500 homes destroyed in Jackson County, 60% were mobile homes.
The Martins did not have tenant insurance and did not seek FEMA help. Their son’s family, however, now live in a FEMA trailer, one of approximately 100 Jackson County households that the agency hosts; a hundred more are on his waiting list. The state is providing hotel rooms and motorhomes to 765 other survivors of the Jackson County fires.
As the Martins were packing their few things in their room at the Redwood Inn, their 7-year-old dog, Keyeva, lay down on the bed. Keyeva was out of the fire, but the Martins’ five chickens died in their henhouse and their cat was nowhere to be found. Living at the Redwood Inn rent-free means they can save for a down payment on a house, the Martins explained. âWe are not looking for handouts,â said Steve Martin. “We’re just looking for a helping hand.”
âWe are not looking for a document. We’re just looking for a helping hand.
A FEW DAYS LATER, THE WEAPON pork tacos and homemade salsa filled the air of an upstairs motel room at the Redwood Inn. Alvarez and his family used the kitchenette in their room; Rogue Retreat had spent more time preparing units that already had kitchenettes to accommodate people with specific dietary or medical needs. Lanette Martin has type 2 diabetes and two of Alvarez’s three children have hemophilia, a bleeding disorder.
After they moved in, one of Alvarez’s first jobs was to give his 10-year-old son, Anthony Gonzalez, the weekly injection that helps his blood clot properly. Alvarez and his children moved from California to Oregon last year, attracted by the state’s good public schools and the burgeoning hemp industry. But forest fires burned down many farms in the area, and Alvarez struggled to find work cutting the hemp.
âWe cannot allow people to sleep in their cars right after a disaster or emergency. “
According to the 2021 report from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, wildfires in the state are expected to become more intense and more frequent. Fires tend to have the greatest impact on marginalized communities, whose members often find themselves with few resources following climate-related disasters, said Alessandra de la Torre, staff member of Rogue Climate, an organization of Southern Oregon Climate Justice. The group helps run a mutual aid center which, seven months after the fires, was still providing food and clothing to around 300 people per week. âWe cannot allow people to sleep in their cars right after a disaster or emergency,â she said. âBecause at the end of the day, you still have to go to work the next day. Your children have to go to school.
Sinking into their new beds at the Redwood Inn, Alvarez’s two youngest children eagerly asked their mother and 22-year-old brother Diego Gonzalez about school – when they could start going and whether it would be in person or virtual. They also asked if they could walk or take the bus to get there, as their mother and brother had to work. Instead, while the family included transportation, the kids spent their first few days in the motel watching TV, playing video games, and looking after their cat, Biscuit. âThey’re not coming out anywhere,â Alvarez said. âThey are locked up. Now, most days of the week, the children wait outside for a bus to take them to school.
Meanwhile, Alvarez, having finally landed one of the few remaining local hemp jobs, returns to the motel every evening, exhausted from working 10 hours a day to save for a tiny house or rental apartment. Squirming on the edge of a motel bed, Alvarez’s 13-year-old daughter, Alma Gonzalez, said she hopes to one day have a room of her own and a dog. Anthony Gonzalez has said he wants a backyard to run. âWe just want to be kids,â her sister added.
But for now, the family is gathering at the Redwood Inn. “I hope,” said Diego Gonzalez, “from here it’s not much further until we can have a house.”
Hanna Merzbach, an Oregon-based freelance journalist, writes on social justice issues and national and local politics, covering topics such as housing and homelessness, education and health equity. Follow @HannaMerzbach
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