While the beautiful January weather continued and many Mission residents ventured off to a warm patio brunch on Saturday morning, approximately 38 of the 54 residents who lost everything in Wednesday’s fire gathered in the florescent lit basement of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter on Valencia near 23rd Streets.
American Red Cross volunteers, easily spotted by their red vests, wandered around. Large bags filled with Pollo Campero fried chicken and board games like Sorry! and Connect Four rested lazily on the plastic tables. A large flat screen TV was tuned to a Spanish channel, but no one was really watching.
The faces in the room were long and tired as each family unit waited its turn to get a briefing on the many services set-up in an adjoining room. Among those there to help was the City and County of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, the group tasked with helping find fire victims new homes.
“I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and this is the toughest housing market I’ve ever seen,” said Benjamin Amyes, the Disaster Response Manager of the Human Services Agency’s Emergency Response Unit.
Today, his goal was to get everyone’s basic information–their income, their previous rent, how many people in their family–so that he can begin what he imagines will be a very difficult process to find temporary, rent-controlled homes for the victims under San Francisco’s Good Samaritan law.
“What I do is buy people time,” he continued, explaining that this process used to largely entail finding people hotel rooms for a few days while they looked for another apartment to rent. Now occupancy rates are high and even if an apartment is free, it is generally too expensive for anyone who has been in a rent controlled apartment for a few years. Most of the families displaced in Wednesday night’s fire at Mission and 22nd Street had been in their apartments for many more years — some for decades.
“With today’s market and people living under rent control apartments they’ve been in forever, it’s going to hard,” he said.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos arrived around 11 a.m. to answer any questions or concerns the 38 residents, most of whom are Latin American immigrants, might have. Many were most concerned about their temporary work permits – a status with immigration that requires a $380 fee to replace cards lost in the fire.
“A lot of people lost their documentation,” Campos said. “All these little things come up,” he continued, mentioning that one man had been unable to move his locked car from street parking because the keys had been in his apartment.
“He now has a ton of tickets,” said Campos, who promised to get those cleared up.
Nancy Caro-Segovia was among those most concerned about the $380 it normally requires to replace a work permit, but Campos promised her that his office would make sure that no one would have to pay that fee.
“We all lost passports, documents, social security numbers…I can’t pay $380 right now,” echoed Caro-Segovia’s neighbor, Yanira Sanchez.
What Caro-Segovia cannot replace is the new Christmas computer she gave her daughter, now a senior at Galileo, who plans to attend college in the fall. The family had been saving a little money to help her achieve that goal, but Caro-Segovia thinks that money will now have to go to rebuilding their lives.
However, each family could get a substantial cash gift from a fund that has so far raised $66, 431. Another fund raiser at Doc’s Clock – that will be matched by Google – will add to the pot. Still, the families are also likely to be paying more in housing and must replace entire lives lost in the fire.
The other services on hand at the Salvation Army’s shelter included San Francisco and Marin Food Bank, social workers from the San Francisco School District, a representative from the Salvadoran consulate, who was helping those who needed passports, and Tzu Chi, an international non-profit organization that provides aid to victims of disasters. All the organizations promised to help in long-term rebuilding and today was a first step in filling out the necessary paperwork to get the ball rolling.
A representative form Tzu Chi said they will begin to make home visits for the remaining victims who have found a place to sleep with family or friends and are not in the shelter. The total number of displaced people is now at 67, including 15 children, according to the Red Cross. This is 13 victims more than the originally reported number of 54.
“Often what will happen is people will find a couch to crash on immediately after a disaster and only come searching for services a few days later,” Jennifer Sturm, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross.
As the afternoon wore on, the victims trickled in between the two rooms and out of the shelter. After lunch, the pace of the day took a slower shift. Virginia Hart, a Red Cross volunteer, took a moment to go take some pictures of the damaged building just a block and a half away.
Walking back to the shelter, Hart mentioned that someone on the street hadn’t realized a fire occurred and one person stopped and asked why there were American Red Cross workers.
Life goes on for most people after a fire, but this is only the beginning of the rebuilding process for the 67 victims of Wednesday’s fire.
The services will be available all day Sunday at the shelter, as well.