The town at the center of California’s climate refugee crisis

·12 min read

After Julia Cheek lost all of her belongings in the Camp fire, she longed for a safe place to lay her head at night. When she finally received a check from the California utility that had caused the fire, Cheek used it to buy the only home she could afford: a 2010 Nissan Xterra.

Cheek didn’t have insurance and has struggled to secure permanent housing since the fire, remaining among the growing population of unhoused residents in this northern California outpost.

“I would prefer to have a bed to sleep in, not a car,” said the 58-year-old, who shares her “home” with her partner John Hatch, and her dog, Shelby. “I’m getting too old for this.”

Cheek’s disaster began in November 2018, when a crumbling component of a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) power line cast sparks into the dry brush of the Sierra Nevada foothills, creating a fire that would kill 85 people, destroy about 14,000 homes and level the town of Paradise.

Like thousands of other fire refugees, Cheek evacuated to Chico, a college town 20 minutes from Paradise popular for its parks and hiking. But the city was already grappling with a vast housing shortage, making finding a permanent place a nearly impossible task for residents like Cheek who had been struggling to make ends meet.

What unfolded in Chico since the fire is a case study for what happens when natural disasters – exacerbated by the climate crisis – meet growing inequality, housing advocates say: A housing shortage severe even by California’s standards, residents pushed out of the area or onto the streets, and a community deeply divided over how to solve the crisis.

“We are witnessing what is coming to everyone else, which is ever greater homeless populations due to climate displacement,” said Ed Mayer, the executive director of the housing authority in Butte county, where Chico and Paradise are located.

“We are now dealing with permanently displaced populations. I call them refugees. These people are so disfranchised from our system they might as well not have a country. These are people without homes, without resources and, quite frankly, without a government to count on.

A crisis long in the making

Chico’s housing troubles began years before the Camp fire. Butte county had long been considered a more affordable region of California, attracting people priced out of other parts of the state who were drawn to its natural beauty, friendly communities and slower-paced lifestyle.

But the area, like the rest of California, failed to build enough housing to keep up with demand. The housing the county did build often didn’t meet the needs of many of its households, about a fifth of whom live at or below the poverty line, a rate that has held steady for years.

In the months leading up to the fire, about 1% of units stood vacant, making it extremely difficult for anyone to find housing, but particularly for those with fewer resources. More and more people ended up on the streets, and homelessness was becoming an increasingly contentious issue. Chico city council meetings regularly stretched into the early morning hours as residents and officials argued about installing 24-hour restrooms, a restrictive sit and lie ordinance, and whether community groups should continue providing free meals to unhoused people in city parks.

Just over a month before the Camp fire tore through the area, Butte county officials declared a “shelter crisis,” in an effort to access additional funding. “If by any other reason, 400 people became homeless by earthquake, flood, fire; we’d have tents up tomorrow. This issue has come on us slowly, and because it’s poverty we’re slow to get up to speed,” Charles Withuhn, a longtime housing advocate, said at the time.

Then came the Camp fire. The flames chewed through miles of vegetation and burned from the isolated mountain hamlet of Concow to Paradise and the nearby community of Magalia. The blaze displaced more than 50,000 people. Butte county, and Chico in particular, initially welcomed fire survivors with open arms, coining the phrase “Butte strong.” A Walmart in Chico became a center for evacuees and people eager to help came to distribute hot meals, gift cards and donations to the displaced.

‘Disaster capitalism in action’

But almost immediately, tensions rose in the city, with some residents concerned about the unhoused population taking resources meant for fire victims. “There was the deserving homeless and all these other people who’ve been homeless for lots of other reasons, but they weren’t deserving. That was the way it all came down,” said Benson Benson, who was unhoused in Chico on and off for 15 years, of the debates at the time.

Meanwhile, Chico and Butte county’s housing stock was pushed to its limits. Displaced residents and firefighters filled up motel rooms and the few available rentals. Many fire refugees who received insurance settlements chose to buy new homes, rather than wait to rebuild in the burn scar, sending Chico’s housing market booming. Some longtime Chico residents lost their rentals as their landlords took advantage of a seller’s market.

In the months after the fire, one count found the county’s homeless population had climbed 16% to 2,304 people. Those who couldn’t find a place to stay bunked with family, slept in their cars or camped.

“We saw disaster capitalism in action,” said Cathryn Carkhuff, the executive director of Home and Heart, a program that matches people in need of housing to homeowners with space. “There was price gouging, even though it was not legal … You take an area that had a housing crisis before the Camp fire, and then add 20,000 people overnight, and it was disastrous.”

Among those struggling to find a place to stay was Cheek. In 2018, before the disaster, Cheek had just returned to the area after living in Ohio for two decades. She was grappling with homelessness for the first time in her life, but had found a place to stay in Paradise thanks to the Sojourner House on the Ridge, a nonprofit where she volunteered.

When the Camp fire approached in November, Cheek and her partner woke to booming sounds she thought were from a storm. They fled to a church where they sheltered through the night as flames scorched the windows.

With all of her belongings destroyed, she, like hundreds of others, initially camped out in a tent in Chico. Some fire refugees received help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) or insurance payouts, but Cheek struggled to get her life back on track.

She and Hatch bounced from place to place, looking for jobs. The couple stayed in at least six different cities across northern California in tents, trailers and a motel converted into housing.

The money Cheek got from PG&E is the most support she’s received. But it’s not enough to buy a house. The median home listing price in Chico in April was $495,000, while a one-bedroom apartment in the city rents for about $1,000 a month.

Filling up the Nissan is expensive, but the vehicle has room for the waste that Cheek and Hatch recycle for income and private space to rest, a welcome change. It also helps put them out of sight of the public.

A city divided

In recent years, unhoused encampments have sprung up at parks across Chico. Service providers say the number of unhoused people in the city has only grown since the fire, becoming more visible during the pandemic.

Officials tallied roughly 2,300 unhoused people in the county in 2019, a point-in-time count that is widely considered an undercount. The results of the most recent count are not yet available, but providers estimate the rates are greater than in 2019. The county estimated in 2021 that there were as many as 6,000 to 7,000 unhoused households in the Chico and Oroville area living in trailers and tents, many of them displaced by the Camp fire and 2020 wildfires.

“The homeless population exploded,” said Addison Winslow, a housing advocate. “People were struggling like people never struggled before: getting evicted and having to find a new place, routinely needing to move and not being able to and facing rent increases.”

The demographics among the unhoused population have changed as well, with nonprofits increasingly seeing older adults and people with disabilities on the street, said Sierra Schmidt, the founder of the housing non-profit Home and Heart.

As the emergency has grown more visible, valley residents have been divided over the path forward.

Some residents have argued for strict policies toward unhoused people, claiming their presence in city parks endangers the community and pollutes waterways. Families no longer feel safe going downtown or on popular trails, they argue, due to visible drug use and crime. At one park encampment, multiple people have overdosed, according to police, and a man died in a stabbing last year.

Conservative groups are publicly feuding with homeless advocates. The leader of one such group told the city he would engage in “citizen’s arrest” against people assisting “illegal campers”.

Social media groups share photos of people living in encampments, comparing them to animals or trash, said Jesica Giannola, a case manager with the Chico Housing Action Team (Chat), a nonprofit that provides housing to hundreds of people experiencing homelessness. Passerby sometimes scream profanities and degrading names at her clients as they drive by, she said.

Last year, a teenager was arrested after walking into a community at a Chico wetland and shooting two unhoused men, one of whom died.

“It’s open season on the homeless,” said Larry Halstead, a Camp fire survivor and a client of Giannola. Halstead, 69, met Cheek and Hatch shortly after he arrived on the streets. The three of them collected recycling together, which gave Halstead income to eat and to buy the tent he slept in before receiving housing through Chat.

The former businessman and Democratic activist was living in Magalia when the fire incinerated his home, and bounced around in temporary living situations with his family before becoming homeless in Chico in 2020 while dealing with cancer.

By then, the town’s compassion was gone, he said, and instead residents and police hassled him, telling him to “get over it”, Halstead recalled on a recent Saturday as he sat with Cheek and Hatch in the same park where authorities once hounded him.

Now, after living indoors for the last few months, he could sit freely under the trees without anyone bothering him. For her part, Cheek, with her clean clothes and neat ponytail, was often spared the harassment many other unhoused people face.

Chico has a history of punitive policies toward unhoused people. A law dating back to 2013 made it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks and entryways around businesses overnight, while another ordinance prevents camping on public property in the city.

The intent of the ordinances, when combined, seemed to be to make it “impossible for anyone who is unhoused to just be anywhere”, said Juan Araujo Sariñana, a member of Chico DSA, a volunteer group that does mutual aid at local encampments. The crackdown ramped up in late 2020 when city officials started increasingly criminalizing homelessness, advocates say, adopting criminal penalties for camping in city parks and “open spaces” after hours. Last year, with a new conservative majority on the city council, Chico began evicting unhoused people from encampments and threatening them with arrest despite the pandemic.

It was dystopian, said Angela McLaughlin, an advocate who saw some of the evictions first-hand. “It was horrifying. People were told to move everything,” she said. “You would see people leaving most of their stuff behind, weeping and pleading.”

The city’s answer was to move people along, even if there was nowhere for them to go. A city councilor, Sean Morgan, told a local radio station: “The [Chico] police department is gonna keep moving them, and they’re gonna keep moving them.”

Chico soon faced federal litigation over its policies toward the homeless, and an injunction forcing the city to stop restricting people from sleeping or camping on public property until it could provide indoor shelter space. The city settled and under the agreement, opened new pallet shelters that can house 177 people.

“It’s a big deal,” Winslow, the housing advocate, said of the shelter. “They actually have somewhere to go. It’s far from ideal, but they’ll make a big change in people’s lives.”

Community organizations and volunteers continue to try to fill in the gaps, bringing meals and personal supplies to encampments and trying to supply housing to the people they can. “There’s not super easy solutions,” said Nicole Drummond, the executive director of the Chico Housing Action Team. “The climate refugees have just increased everything exponentially.”

Ultimately the only way out of the crisis, advocates say, is with more housing. Butte county needs thousands more units to house all its residents, homes that the people who live here can actually afford. County officials estimate that for every studio and one bedroom in town, there are 10 households who want it.

Prior to the Camp fire, officials with the housing authority estimated it would take 6,000 units of affordable housing to level the playing field in the county. More than $1bn in funding has poured into the area to help Butte county construct more affordable housing – about 2,500 units are on the way – which amounts to the largest investment in affordable housing on a per capita basis in US history, Mayer said. It also means what happens in Butte county could have implications for the rest of the US as climate disasters become more common.

“We’re in the middle of a grand experiment,” he said. “Our question is will it move the needle.”

Chico continues to boom. The city is moving forward with what would be the largest development in its history, Valley’s Edge, which would bring nearly 3,000 units to the fire prone foothills in the south-east.

Cheek is making plans too. If she gets additional settlement money from PG&E, she’d like to buy a small camper trailer to attach to her vehicle with more room to stretch out and make meals for her friends who live on the street. “I’d have a place to sleep, and a place to cook.”