On November 8, 2018, 50,000 people became homeless after the deadliest fire in California history…

<Paradise, California.> With 18,000 structures destroyed, 50,000 people displaced, four hundred square miles burned, the death toll approaching 100 and some 500 persons still unaccounted for, the California Homeless Union continues to bring direct support and a message of self-organization to those who have been suddenly forced into the ranks of the homeless by the deadliest fire in California history.

As the massive fire that began November 8, 2018 engulfed the small towns of Paradise, Magalia and Concow in the Sierra Nevada foothills; while residents fled for their lives and huddled in refugee camps; while politicians flew in for photo-ops, the Marysville Homeless Union began collecting blankets, clothes, hygiene items and toys from those along the river bottoms of Yuba County who have known homelessness and persecution for decades.

Union executive board members Bryan Lee Brown, Raelynn Butcher and Stanley Extein then drove to refugee centers and makeshift campgrounds in nearby Gridley, Yuba City and Chico distributing items to their suddenly homeless sisters and brothers. The Union pushed back against efforts by city officials and traditional “disaster relief” agencies to divide the fire victims from the long-term existing homeless. As Union President Bryan Lee Brown informed local “relief agencies,” “It doesn’t matter how we became homeless; we are all the same.

The town of Paradise, once home to 26,000 people, is gone.

For days, the attention of the world was riveted on the harrowing images of flames racing across narrow dirt roads and devouring houses, trailers and businesses as frantic residents attempted to flee monstrous flames hot enough to melt chrome and all but vaporize human beings, many of whom may never be found. Soon, President Trump — denying the obvious role that global warming played in the disaster — was joined by California Governor Jerry Brown and governor-elect Gavin Newsome for a photo-op while residents of the incinerated town were kept out.

Named after Butte County’s Camp Creek Road where it began, the “Camp Fire” left thousands of mostly poor, mostly aged and disproportionately disabled persons with no place to live. Overnight, residents of tiny Paradise, California joined the ranks of the 137,000 officially estimated already homeless here in the “Golden State.” It is believed that the fire has produced the largest number of homeless Californians ever arising from a single event. Meanwhile, in nearby Chico, California, thousands formed a massive encampment in a vacant lot owned by and adjacent to Walmart. But as the lucrative Black Friday sales approached, the world’s largest retailer, Chico city officials and certain “charitable organizations” began applying pressure to disband the camp by removing porta-potties and other emergency services.

But concerned community activists fought back, including “North Valley Mutual Aid,” which grew out of the tragedy and declared in its powerful Mission Statement: “Disaster survivors themselves are the first responders to crisis [and] have the agency, ability, and power to make their own decisions and choices about their lives, recovery and long-term resilience without interference or coercion from outside forces.” The emergence of genuine aid efforts that respect the integrity of the homeless communities is a significant and welcome development.

In fact, hundreds of poor and isolated California communities have never recovered from the state’s five-year drought. Their residents remain most at risk from life-threatening and rapidly worsening global warming. The state has seen a series of deadly wildfires leaving thousands homeless in their wake. In Paradise, the official poverty rate was already in the double-digits, seniors on fixed incomes kept to themselves and homelessness had already become a visible expression of hard times when the inferno exploded. The fire has multiplied the misery tenfold.

Greg Shafer’s parents survived, but the
Paradise house he grew up in was lost.
A member of the California Poor
People’s Campaign, Greg is a mental
health provider in Paradise. “My dad is
a truck driver, my mom a retired
elementary school yard monitor. They
did ‘everything right’ and now they’re
homeless. It can happen to anyone.”

The California Homeless Union expects to see hundreds, if not thousands, of new homeless encampments in the wake of this tragedy. They will be born into a political environment of government hostility. They will soon find themselves in a new fight for their lives, in a war zone where cities and towns across California are using anti-camping laws and the police to destroy the tent cities and chase the homeless “out of town.” In the midst of the Camp Fire, one state official came on the radio and solemnly proclaimed that the Camp Fire victims will never find homes in California and should simply leave the state altogether. To that official, we say, “We Shall Not Be Moved!” California is now the fifth largest economy in the world. The resources and technology exist to feed, clothe and shelter everyone. There is no reason why anyone should be homeless.

Marysville’s “Homeless Mayor” Raelynn Butcher at the Chico evacuee camp: “It looks like they’re just running people out of here.”

The California Homeless Union/Statewide Organizing Council was formed to unify the homeless struggles in Salinas, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Marysville and to help build a new movement of the dispossessed. We are committed to the struggle for genuine relief and justice in the aftermath of this disaster. We intend to play our part, assisting in the self-organization of those who’ve lost everything. We know that homelessness is simply the most visible expression of poverty, which includes some eight million poor Californians. We know that we are all one paycheck, one missed rent check, one family medical emergency, one layoff — and now, one “natural” disaster — away from homelessness.

We are part of a broader struggle and we’re ready to do our part. Won’t you help?

To directly help the victims of the Camp Fire, contact North Valley Mutual Aid at nvma@riseup.net.

  • To learn more about the California Homeless Union (Marysville), go to HUMAN (Homeless Union Media Answering the News) here.
  • Learn about the Salinas Homeless Union and its supporters on Facebook at Monterey County Homeless Advocates. You may also reach the Union by phone — Marysville: 530-813-7111; Oakland: 510-301-1472; Santa Cruz: 831-423-4833; Salinas: 510-274-9275.

If you are in the Sacramento Valley region, please join us for a Community Dinner, 2:00pm – 5:00 pm, Thursday, November 29, 2018, St. John’s Episcopal Church, 800 “D” Street, Marysville, CA. Co-sponsored by the Marysville Homeless Union and the California Poor People’s Campaign.


“They are just like us.” California Homeless Union Statement on the Central American Caravan

The California Homeless Union/Statewide Organizing Council protests the brutal mistreatment of the migrant caravan at the U.S.-Mexican border.

These people are just like us: they have been pushed out of their homes by poverty. Like them, our members include women and children fleeing domestic violence. Like them, we know what it’s like to be shunned and feared; to walk all day with everything you own on your back; to hide; to be criminalized and insulted simply because you are poor.

The border isn’t the only place where they separate families; they take children away from the homeless every day. And we know what it’s like to be dehumanized and falsely labeled a “threat to public safety,” to face jail for simply trying to survive. Our “leaders” are building a wall while Paradise lies in ruins.

So we stand with the caravan. Because they are just like us.