"The embers were falling… I looked outside and it was just black, it was so dark… and then I looked across the road and the fire was already hitting the houses right across the street from me,” Brent recalls of the morning when flames enveloped his Paradise, CA home. Smoke was first reported around 6:30 a.m., and in less than two hours, the blaze was devouring Paradise, taking 86 lives and 14,000 residences in what has come to be known as the Camp Fire. Brent had been living there since 2014 and was 61 years old, retired, and coping with a recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
Brent speaks fondly of his early life, remembering how he moved to Hawaii when he was just 18 years old, pulled by his love of surfing. He returned to California to take care of his ailing father, and then mother when she was battling cancer. Brent was fond of Paradise, it was home, but the Camp Fire turned those fond memories to ash.
“It took everything in my entire life; I have nothing. I lost my dad’s WWII uniform that he had from the Army and all his medals, and he had purple hearts. It was a lot of very sentimental things. Furniture and TVs and computers and all that stuff I lost, that can all be replaced, but these other things are gone forever. It was heartbreaking. Every day I still cry a little bit over it because I’ll never see it again.”
Paradise Lost, Then Found
It took everything in my entire life; I have nothing. It was a lot of very sentimental things.
— Brent, Mercy Housing Resident
The Search Begins
The night he lost his home, Brent slept at a friend’s place. The next morning, he went to a shelter for 18 days. Shelters are just that, a shelter, not a home. Brent went to Sacramento where he had a cousin that let him stay while he got on his feet and looked for a home. Housing options were sparse, and the jump in demand raised prices considerably.
Six months after the fire, Brent was feeling desperate. He’d been swimming in red tape applying for housing. Brent was a former surfer and photographer, had opened a restaurant, and had spent his career helping people battle addiction when he was a counselor, all while becoming a father and grandfather. Much of his career was spent helping those in need, and then he was the one in need. His voice is calm when he recalls his early life, but quivers when he speaks about those six months without a place to call home. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t provide for himself. Keeping a roof over his head hadn’t been a problem until his roof went up in flames.
“Out of all the places I applied to rent and got on waiting lists for, [Mercy Housing] was the only [one] that contacted me. I thought, ‘there’s got to be something special about this place.’”
Mercy Housing responded to Brent with the good news that he was invited to move into St. Francis Terrace community in Sacramento. His life stabilized, but things are different now. He lost cherished family heirlooms and years’ worth of photos in the Camp Fire, but also, his sense of place. Starting over in a new city isn’t easy, and climate change is likely to create more stories like Brent’s.
People with low incomes and disabilities are profoundly more susceptible to the effects of climate change displacement. Low-income families live in neighborhoods with greater exposure to extreme weather events due to cost and access. Natural disasters are happening more frequently and with more severity than ever before, and these disasters — wildfires, rising temperatures, and frequent drought — are taking their toll.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cited the unusually dry fall and gusting winds as the causes for the Camp Fire’s severity. These unusual factors are predicted to be the usual as climate change persists. You can count deaths and injuries, but how do you measure the emotional loss of a home, the loss of place? Before the Camp Fire, Brent had a stable home.
An unpredictable climate has the power to destroy people’s self-sustaining capabilities. Without Mercy Housing, Brent’s future would be uncertain. With more natural disasters predicted, it begs the question of how communities will provide for increasing numbers of people that have lost everything unexpectedly. For affordable housing, climate change isn’t just a concern of the future, but rather a threat of today.
A Voice for Justice and Mercy
Climate change has and will continue to worsen the lack of housing availability. Research proves that climate change disproportionately harms people with low incomes, but that fails to tell us how many people with stable middle incomes, homeowners, could lose that security too. Lessons learned from affordable housing offer a warning for what climate change could mean for the country’s housing stability.
People like Brent might have come to Mercy Housing with few possessions, but they offer a wealth of experience. Residents’ stories of climate change displacement reveal lessons to learn. They help us recognize the need to draw attention to the nexus of affordable housing and the climate crisis. Our Green Hope program is helping us to do just that, all while reducing our communities’ consumption of natural resources, reduce our waste, and creating healthier living environments. The plight of our country’s low-income families isn’t separate from the broader community. We’re bound through shared schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods — the things each one of us needs to prosper. Mercy Housing’s success with affordable housing hinges on partnerships and that irreplaceable sense of community, and like building homes, working together is the only way that we can face climate change with hope.
there's got to be something special about this place.
— Brent, Mercy Housing Resident