Intersections after the Camp Fire

ASPIRE in CA PoppiesASPIRE in CA Poppies

intersection (n.) – the point where two things come together and have an effect on each other

I’ve just returned to Seattle from Chico, CA where I spent a little over a week. In that single week I learned so much, was trusted with so many stories, was invited into the community, and made many new friends. Chico, a community of 90,000 is now home to 20,000 new residents seeking refuge from neighboring Paradise after the Camp Fire of November 2018. Chico, like many American cities, was dealing with its own issue of homelessness before the Camp Fire, plus a very low vacancy rate. Now Chico has a 20,000 person increase in population and officials and citizens are working on housing solutions for two distinct populations that are intersecting. 

Working to Connect

Since the fire, I’ve been working on connecting with folks in Butte County, CA via email and social media. We created a database and tried to get information about Close to Home and our recovery housing/post-disaster housing options to the folks who might be able to make some decisions. But it’s just never that simple. 14,000 homes were destroyed, and it takes time to make inroads on really helping that number of people. Especially when first, 600,000 trees need to be dealt with because they: 

  1. are in public rights of way 
  2. are blocking access to properties that need to be cleaned up
  3. are safety hazards and must be dealt with as first priority

Four months after the fire, 51,000 trees have been removed. There is so much work to be done.

In light of the fact that we understood from afar that agencies were simply overwhelmed, we decided to bring our ASPIRE model – designed and built specifically as recovery housing – down to Chico. A real tiny house tour is worth a thousand words, we thought, and that proved to be the case.

A Little Background…

After the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014 (the largest single wildfire in Washington state history), we traveled to Pateros, WA and heard directly from folks there that they were receiving many, many offers of volunteer labor to rebuild, alongside offers of donated materials. We went to the drawing board to think about how to incorporate those donations into a product that could help, and our ASPIRE Tiny House on Wheels DIY Kit was born. The basic idea of the Kit is to harness volunteer labor in the form of old-fashioned barn-raisings. Because our ASPIRE is designed with factory built Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS), the envelope of the building (floor, walls & roof) go up in just two days. And then away you go with the rest of the build!


Since Close to Home was founded with a mission of bringing recovery housing to communities impacted by natural disasters, having this tiny house model to show to folks in Chico gave me a real feeling of accomplishment. Years have been spent in researching what this specific market needs, and tiny houses have been slowly gaining acceptance across the country as a real affordable housing solution for many. Maybe now the timing is right for tiny houses to help a portion of these 20,000 people who are searching for an interim housing solution as they figure out what their longer-term plan will be.

Collaboration

In the course of working to connect with folks in Butte County, I was posting relevant information on LinkedIn. It’s there that I was connected to Tina Newman, President of Visible Good. Tina reached out and we talked about our mutual goals of working to get our products into the hand of folks in Butte County. Visible Good’s “Rapid Deployment Module” (RDM), (designed by John Rossi) is now featured on our Close to Home website and is an excellent solution for temporary housing or office space. It’s a “transformer” of sorts – coming in a crate that opens into the floor of the unit, with the wall pieces stacked within the crate. Tina and I planned a trip to Chico and Paradise for the week after our phone conversation. We felt that time was of the essence and we wanted to get our collaborative “boots on the ground”.

Visible Good’s RDMs – One going up,
two other crates ready for transformation

Thanks to some additional networking with Corey Weathers of Homegrown Trailers, I connected to a local Paradise activist, Allen Myers. Allen wanted to get housing options into Chico ASAP, understanding that every day that passed was seeing Camp Fire survivors having to relocate elsewhere (often out of state) in order to pick up their lives. Tina and I met with Allen and decided to bring our products to Chico and to simply host our own “Recovery Housing” event. 

Allen found land owned by a local gentleman, Ted Ball. Mr. Ball graciously allowed us to have our products on his land in order to show them to some decision and policy makers in the County and other local jurisdictions. I invited my collaborator, Patrick Sughrue, of Artisan Tiny House, to join us and he invited his friends, owners of All American Emergency Services to show their shower and laundry facilities. Suddenly we had a little show of products that could help, and word traveled through Chico and Paradise and folks showed up to tour, talk and share.

Mobile Shower Units by All American Emergency Services

The Stories

Our event was busy, lots of folks coming and going and stories shared. You can’t live in Chico and not have been impacted by the Camp Fire. There are survivors everywhere, and stories of November 8th loom large, of course. I heard terrifying details of the escape from the Fire that were not anywhere in the national news reports. It’s four months after the Fire and folks are deep in processing their experiences. I showed my tiny house and I listened that day. And I’m struck by traits that one needs to have in order to move through the recovery process:

  • RESILIENCE
  • CAPACITY
  • EMPATHY (for self and others)
  • SUPPORT
  • PATIENCE

These survivors are navigating a difficult world. And as we see natural disasters occurring on a more and more regular basis, we’re all going to need to increase our general capacity to handle what is coming – in whatever way we might intersect with a disaster or survivor of a natural disaster.

Camp Fire/Recovery Housing Intersects with Housing for the Homeless

As Tina and I communicated with Allen and hatched a plan to bring our products to Chico, we learned that a tiny house village was in the planning stages for the same lot where we would be temporarily staged. We were talking about different sections of the same lot – our temporary spot being on the Northern section, with a creek dissecting the lot, and the planned village to the South. An NPR article was written about the village and its founding group, Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT).

Somewhat ironically, it seems to have been the surge in the need for housing after the Camp Fire that finally allowed CHAT to receive its go ahead from the Chico City Council for “Simplicity Village”. There were also changes on the Council that helped the cause. Suddenly, it was not just the chronically homeless who needed shelter. It may have been easier for folks to identify with the Camp Fire survivor’s basic needs for housing solutions – pushing everyone to think more broadly about how to provide a safe and secure home for people in need in general. In any case, this community that is actively engaged in looking out for one another in this moment of crisis was receptive to our direct action of bringing our recovery housing products to town.

A Well-Named & Well-Intentioned Organization

Wednesday, the day of our event, flew by. And Thursday Patrick, Tina and I attended a Long-Term Recovery Meeting focused on Housing. We saw some folks that we had met the previous day and met many new people as well. Then my colleagues needed to head out of town and I had to figure out my logistics for the next few days. After all, I had hauled ASPIRE down to Chico and hoped to sell her where she was obviously needed! I had some work to do.

That evening, Leslie Johnson, Board Member of CHAT, called me up and we talked for about forty-five minutes. It was a great connection made – especially the day that my colleagues took their leave. We made a plan to meet at the tiny house the next day. Before I knew it, there was a CHAT party going on in ASPIRE. What a great group of folks. They loved ASPIRE, totally understood where I was coming from regarding all of this work, and that gathering set up the day. Folks left and came back later with more visitors in tow. 

My new CHAT friends come for a visit!

I was offered housing, was invited to a local play, felt as if I had found my people. CHAT is composed of dedicated, smart, funny, hard-working folks who are actively engaged in on the ground solutions to better the lives of their fellow citizens. They’ve been working hard to figure out a number of different solutions to housing those on the margins. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – we just need to find organizations such as theirs, learn from them, and replicate, replicate, replicate.

I’m Not in Kansas Anymore, but Greensburg Still Comes Up

One of the many conversations had during the visit with CHAT Board Members was about their interest in learning more about the green rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas. That topic came up somehow, either from my mention of being a native of Topeka, KS, or because I have a photo from Greensburg in the tiny house. Greensburg was struck by an EF5 tornado on May 4, 2007 and 95% of the city was destroyed. I mentioned that I had conducted a case study of Greensburg in my MBA program, because I was fascinated by the work they did to rebuild as sustainably as possible. Plus, the significant population decrease after the tornado has played a large role in my understanding and appreciation of the fact that you have to keep people as close to home (yes, this influenced the name of the company!) as quickly as possible in order to retain the population and have the energy to rebuild and recover. Before the tornado Greensburg had a population of 1544 and is now at 777 residents.

Greensburg, KS
Greensburg, KS – an old windmill in the foreground with a new wind farm in the distance

Dan Joseph, CHAT Board Member and Camp Fire survivor/Paradise resident, kindly initiated an invitation to speak about Close to Home, ASPIRE and my experience in Greensburg to the Paradise Community Guilds the following Monday. It was lovely to be in a community eager for information, connections, new ideas and where I could share my passion and discoveries – all for a really good cause. The audience was engaged and appreciative and I look forward to returning to cheer on this community working to rebuild in the wake of having lost so much. This note on their website sums it up,“Our hall may be ash, but we continue to gather together to “Be the community you want to live in”.”

After the meeting folks wanted to see the tiny house, so we got in carpools and headed over. How many people can you fit in a tiny house? Well, I think we had 15! Plus, at one point, a very large German Shepherd mix!

Building Tiny & Community…

I found that during the week I kind of settled in to Chico. It was nice, after all of the hustle and bustle of my Seattle area life, to be in a community where folks were happy to drive by and drop in on me at one of my many open houses during my stay. Folks I met on Wednesday would drive by and toot their horns. I have a feeling that this community of Paradise is going to figure out how to recover and rebuild – with the support of Chico and Butte County. 

Close to Home’s ASPIRE with Visible Good’s RDMs on the left

It’s not easy, people are struggling – that’s evident, but people are also talking about those struggles. When I attended the Long-Term Recovery meeting on Friday – a report out opportunity for all of the organizations participating in the Recovery – it was obvious that mental health is a high priority for the community. There are good people doing lots of good work. More help is needed, but they are working to streamline the process of getting volunteers where they are most needed.

In the meantime, I left ASPIRE settled in her little field of California poppies (the state flower). We’ve got her for sale now where she can do the most good. With our DIY Kits for sale, seeing the model is powerful regarding understanding what folks can build, by harnessing volunteer labor and donated materials, just as we heard was wanted back in WA in 2014 after our wildfires.

I’m looking forward to settling ASPIRE in with her new owner and getting Kit orders processed and ideally another model built. We’d like to document just how quickly she could be built. Ideally, in a warehouse, with another time lapse documenting the process. There is so much need, so many people to house. Tiny houses won’t work for everyone, but they are a great solution for lots of folks and we’re pleased to offer ASPIRE Kits as an option for many.

The Power of NOW

I’m also looking forward to more visits to Chico and Paradise in the coming months. I feel that there is a great opportunity to push the envelope of what recovery housing looks like after a natural disaster. Hopefully that will mean that folks are precariously housed for shorter and shorter amounts of time after disasters. Agencies at all different levels are looking for new solutions and the time to shift the paradigm is NOW.

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