Missouri Is Denying Parole to People Sentenced as Children

Tino Wedlow’s future ended in 1989, when at 17 years old he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After exhausting the appeal process, there was nothing left for him but to slowly age to death.

Finally, a recent major court decision opened the door to possible freedom for Wedlow and other Missourians who were sentenced to life without parole before they were old enough to vote. It also shined a light on how — despite a Supreme Court ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are cruel and unusual — authorities have been slow in granting those prisoners their chance at freedom.

Wedlow, now 46, was sent away at a time when prison sentences — and prison populations — were skyrocketing. In 1992, there were about 12,500 people serving life without parole in the United States. By 2017, there were 53,000, including 2,200 who were convicted as children. These lengthy sentences for violent offenses are a major driver of mass incarceration.

Then a series of groundbreaking Supreme Court rulings rolled back the sentences that can be given to children. In 2012, Miller v Alabama banned mandatory sentencing schemes that give children life without parole. In 2016, Montgomery v Louisiana ruled that people already serving such sentences — such as Wedlow — must be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 2012 ruling. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

To comply with the ruling, the Missouri legislature passed a law allowing Wedlow and about 90 others to petition for parole after 25 years. It instructed the parole board to consider specific factors at hearings for this group, including growth and rehabilitation, age and maturity at the time of the crime, and “the defendant’s background, including his or her family, home, and community environment.”

Wedlow watched the news about the decision on his cell mate’s television. “I was like, ‘Wow. God is good,’” he recalled. “That ruling gave all of us hope.”

But as Missouri’s juvenile lifers began going before the parole board in 2016, they were almost uniformly denied. At Wedlow’s February 2017 hearing, he was asked about the details of his 1989 crime for about 10 minutes over video conference. Afterwards, he received a one-page, boilerplate denial form stating his release “would depreciate the seriousness of the present offense.” His next hearing was set for February 2022 — five years in the future.

In May 2017, four Missourians serving juvenile life without parole who were similarly denied filed a federal class action lawsuit, alleging that this treatment was not what the Supreme Court had in mind when it ruled that those imprisoned as children deserve a chance at release. This October, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey agreed, giving the Missouri Department of Corrections until Dec. 11 to come up with a plan that “should include revised policies, procedures, and customs designed to ensure that all Class members are provided a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

“Obviously, we’re really excited,” said Amy Breihan, Director of the St. Louis office of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which represented the incarcerated plaintiffs. “This has been a long battle in Missouri to get some semblance of justice for these folks.”

However, Breihan noted that in Missouri, “It’s far from the end of the case.” She and her clients are waiting to see what remedy the Department of Corrections proposes by the deadline. “My hope is what that means is the board can no longer deny parole to these individuals based solely on the circumstances of the offense,” she said. “That’s something our clients have been saying all along doesn’t make sense in light of the spirit and language of Miller, and it doesn’t make sense to us either.” Earlier this month, Laughrey granted Breihan and her clients permission to create and file their own, competing plan for getting Missouri into compliance with the Supreme Court rulings.

People whose early life looks like Wedlow’s are disproportionately likely to wind up incarcerated.

“Compliance with Montgomery has varied significantly around the country,” the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth reported in January. “Whether an individual serving [juvenile life without parole] has a meaningful opportunity for release depends foremost on the state in which he or she was sentenced.” In New York, a similar ongoing federal suit alleges that the parole board routinely denies release to people sentenced as children, in defiance of the Supreme Court rulings.

Wedlow hopes that at his next hearing, the parole board will be required to consider his successful prison record, the classes he has taken, and mitigating factors of his crime, including his age and family life. Wedlow entered foster care when he was seven, after a child care worker responding to a domestic violence report found food-bare cabinets filled with cockroaches, urine-soaked mattresses, and piles of reeking dirty clothes. At 16, after he refused to live with his mother at a family friend’s house, a juvenile court determined that his behavior was “injurious to his welfare” and he was sent to juvenile detention school, despite not being charged with any crime.

People whose early life looks like Wedlow’s are disproportionately likely to wind up incarcerated. Last March, the Brookings Institution linked incarceration records and IRS records, finding that boys born into households earning in the bottom 10 percent of income earners are 20 times more likely to be in prison in their early 30s than boys born into the top 10 percent. And these economic disparities have knock-on effects: According to an Equal Justice Initiative report from before the Supreme Court rulings, “kids who cannot afford competent counsel face a dramatically escalated risk of being sentenced to die in prison.”

If released, Wedlow plans to live in a halfway house and work for a family friend until he can save enough money to move into a one-bedroom apartment in a low-crime area outside Kansas City. He also wants to take night classes to get a trade job. And he looks forward to meeting his four nieces and nephews in person for the first time. His sister — who was just six when he went away — has never been able to bring them, since he is allowed just three visitors at a time.

Wedlow believes that if the parole board considers his background and circumstances, they will let him go: “Once they look at that and see that I was never in juvenile for no crime, that I was physically and verbally neglected and abused as a child, and in and out of foster care — not for juvenile delinquency but for my own safety and welfare — they’ve got to give me a date.”



Black Friday Isn’t the Only Time Workers Face Unfair Schedules

Some of the biggest retailers in the U.S., including Best Buy, Macy’s, and Target, will be opening their doors to shoppers directly on Thanksgiving this year, getting Black Friday — one of the year’s biggest shopping days — started early. That means employees at those stores will have to leave their families and turkey dinners aside in order to come to work.

In a 2016 survey, nearly half of retail workers reported having to work on Thanksgiving, and big employers are far more likely to have their workers on duty than are smaller ones. Those who refuse or complain can face retaliation, leaving many to decide that putting up a fight isn’t worth seeing their hours cut or losing their jobs entirely.

Every year there are a flurry of stories that question whether that practice is worth denying workers a holiday at home. However, long holiday hours are just one of the myriad abuses employees face when it comes to their work schedules.

Take, for instance, Aliyyah Miller, a housekeeping supervisor at a hotel in Philadelphia. She only receives her work schedule one day in advance, on Saturday for a workweek that begins on Sunday. “Literally, you know the day before which days you’re working,” she said. “You can’t make a doctor’s appointment because you don’t know if you’ll have the day off.”

The turnover at Miller’s hotel is high, and the housekeepers lose hours and income when they have to call out of shifts that conflict with their other responsibilities, thanks at least in part to the unpredictable nature of their schedules.

Nearly one in five workers experiences similarly unstable work hours, and those who are subjected to the worst abuses are disproportionately women and people of color, because they are more likely to work in the low-wage, part-time jobs that include the most haphazard scheduling.

Younger workers, too, are more likely to face abuses: According to research from the University of Chicago, nearly 40 percent of early-career workers receive one week or less of notice regarding their work schedules, with young part-time workers and workers of color experiencing rates even higher.

Workers report weekly earnings fluctuating by 34 percent or more

Other scheduling problems include the inability to ask for time off when it’s needed; split shifts, wherein workers have unpaid hours in the middle of their shifts; and being dismissed early when businesses isn’t high enough, meaning they aren’t paid for hours they were banking on. On-call work, when workers are put on notice that their services may be needed between particular hours, requires them to reserve time for which they may not be compensated.

The income volatility that comes with an unpredictable work schedule can lead to all sorts of adverse outcomes. After all, monthly bills stay the same no matter your hours, whereas service workers report weekly earnings fluctuating by 34 percent or more. Erratic schedules also make it difficult to commit to other paying work in order to make those ends meet.

Unpredictable scheduling also makes securing child care difficult, as it has to be done on short notice. It makes it harder for workers to access the health care system, as Miller noted, or to invest in themselves via more education, which requires predictability in order to choose and attend classes.

Unsurprisingly, then, workers who face schedule volatility are more stressed and experience more health problems, as do their children.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When Miller previously worked as a kitchen manager, she knew that her staff members had lives outside of work. So she ensured they had regular schedules that were planned out ahead of time.

“We would rotate weekends and everyone had one day off during the week to take care of things,” she said. “I had zero turnover. Everyone was happy because they could attend to their children, they could have a life.”

Some national chains, such as Walmart and Starbucks,  have taken steps toward improving scheduling practices, even if they fall short of what workers and activists have demanded. According to a study done in 2015-2016 at Gap stores, more regular schedules result in more productivity and higher sales. That finding jives with other data showing pro-worker policies improve the performance of the businesses at which they work.

Still, fair scheduling isn’t common practice. So cities and states have stepped in.

San Francisco was the first locale to pass a fair work schedule law, followed by New York City, Seattle, Emeryville, California, and others. Oregon has a statewide fair scheduling law. Though they differ in the details, the general thrust of all of them is to provide workers with some level of predictability, including knowing their schedules more than a week in advance, and providing compensation for erratic or unfair scheduling, such as paying workers for some portion of their time if a shift gets canceled.  (There was also a federal bill introduced in 2017 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that never received a vote in the Republican-controlled Congress.)

Miller’s home of Philadelphia could be next. At the end of the month, the city council is expected to vote on a measure that would require employers at large firms to give their workers 10-days notice of their schedules (increasing to 14 days in 2021) and for those firms to compensate workers for last-minute schedule changes. If it becomes law, the legislation is expected to affect about 130,000 workers. According to a 2018 survey by the Shift Project, a joint effort between the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco, two-thirds of Philadelphia service sector workers report having unpredictable work schedules. More than a third say they receive less than one week’s notice regarding when they’re going to be on duty. Miller and her housekeeping staff, then, have a lot of company.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who introduced the bill, described one Philadelphia worker she met who quit school because his ever-shifting schedule didn’t allow him to attend classes, and another who sat around all-day, paying for child care, while waiting for on-call hours that never materialized.

“I am trying to do more than pass a bill. I’m trying to change people’s understanding of a problem we’ve got and why this matters, and why this shouldn’t be left to the purview of the market,” Gym said.

No new law is going to help those employees who are stuck working on Thanksgiving this year, but far scheduling efforts like the one in Philadelphia can, hopefully, ensure that next year turns out better.




Crowdfunding Is a Symptom Of America’s Sick Health Care System

“I nearly went to the hospital for the 22nd time in 7 months. As you can imagine this has depleted all of my money,” writes Tara. She continues: “My family has done so much and will help me once I’m there, but I need to move on my own…So look, I’m a responsible girl, I’ve been holding it down for 16 years while feeling like I could be taken at any time.”

Tara is running a campaign  on the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe. She has fibromyalgia and a host of complications, and needs to relocate to access health care. She started fundraising in March 2017, and a year and a half later, she’s raised less than a quarter of what she needs. She’s not alone. Medical expenses are already the leading crowdfunding cause and donations can’t keep up with demand; a 2017 study showed that 90 percent of medical crowdfunding campaigns failed to reach their goals.

The use of crowdfunding to pay not just for medical care but adjacent costs, such as lost work associated with being ill, caregiving costs for ill family members, utilities, travel and lodging costs to access care, and other externalities, is growing common. For low-income people who are under and uninsured, these cost burdens can be particularly high.

Faced with urgent financial needs, some may turn to payday lenders and other high-interest, high-risk “alternative financial services.” An increasing number are looking to crowdfunding, but Lauren S. Berliner and Nora Kenworthy at the University of Washington Bothell, authors of the 2017 study finding that these campaigns often fall short, discovered success can hinge on things like socioeconomic networks, media literacy, and the ability to translate needs into a compelling and understandable narrative. Campaign success can also be contingent on the nature of the ask; asking for help with ongoing caregiving costs, for example, is less straightforward than requesting assistance with the costs of a specific medical procedure.

Perusing crowdfunding sites reveals ample glossy, well-prepared pleas for help that are netting healthy proceeds, like “Join Oscar’s Village,” featuring a baby with acute flaccid myelitis, a brief, emotive story, and pictures of a happy family. Other campaigns have few to no donations and haven’t been optimized for an audience, like Tara’s: rambling, poorly-punctuated pleas for help, lengthy and apologetic stories, and blurry photos that don’t catch the eye of visitors. It’s a brave new world of health care financing in which those with socioeconomic privilege are better positioned for success than others.

Berliner and Kenworthy fear crowdfunding may be exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities. “Crowdfunding normalizes a means of health care financing that runs counter to a more rights-based system of values,” says Berliner. “

It normalizes the idea that individuals should make decisions about who does and doesn’t deserve care.

” Their work finds that crowdfunding promotes “hyper-individualized accounts of suffering” — the kind of tearjerker personal stories that get picked up in the media, like the widow of a shooting victim who needed help with his lung disease or the woman who saved her husband’s life with CPR while 39 weeks pregnant — that depend on individual ability to leverage media platforms. Crowdfunding sites themselves are also pulled into this debate as they become “an arbiter for public problems,” they say, developing the algorithms that can determine success or failure, verifying high-profile campaigns, and making decisions about what gets highlighted.

With crowdfunding occupying a growing role in the health care landscape, it should be noted that campaigners may also not be aware of the financial implications of participation, including tax liabilities or jeopardizing eligibility for need-based programs like Medicaid. Those most in need of advice on these issues may be least able to access it, lacking attorneys and accountants in their friend networks and unaware that they may need to consult a professional for advice.

The rise of medical crowdfunding demonstrates that insured and uninsured alike are struggling with health care expenses, especially among low-income people. In states without Medicaid expansion, medical debt is particularly high. Medical debt may be ubiquitous, but the amount of debt is often surprisingly small. A 2018 Health Affairs study discovered over half of medical bills sent to collections were under $600. Still, that’s much more than most Americans can pay. In 2017, the Federal Reserve found that 40 percent of people would struggle with an unexpected expense of $400 or more.

Far from being a grassroots solution to disparities in health care access, crowdfunding may just be making the problem worse by foregrounding personal responsibility over institutional accountability. It’s an extension of the argument we saw during the Affordable Care Act fight, put succinctly by Republican Representative Steve King when he said “I think a national health care act substitutes for a lack of personal responsibility.” The belief that the ACA was a handout rather than a hand up is ubiquitous among Congressional Republicans, who enjoy a comprehensive and very affordable health care plan as part of their jobs.

But more and more, we’re seeing voters disagree. Health care affordability was certainly on the minds of voters last week as they turned out to vote for Medicaid expansion in three states, Democratic governors who can drive Medicaid expansion like Laura Kelly in Kansas, and members of Congress who made health care part of their platform.

Stabilizing the Affordable Care Act and moving to protect Medicaid and Medicare may help bring some direct health care costs under control for currently vulnerable groups. This includes those in states currently without Medicaid expansions and moderate-income people who don’t qualify for subsidies or have high-deductible employer-sponsored insurance.

In the meantime, those facing high health care costs and associated expenses will have to keep turning to the internet for help. “I’m white knuckling it to California in a thyroid storm and was just told I need a biopsy now! It may be a long journey, if I have a surge it’s a hospital or hotel! Please pray and god bless you all!,” says Tara in her last update, featuring a photo of her in a hospital bed. It was posted 18 months ago.


First Person

Poverty Isn’t Neglect, But the State Took My Children Anyway

As I write this, I’m sitting in a small, humid room in Plantation, Florida. I’m from Seattle, and I know almost nobody in this area, but I can’t leave. That’s because my three- and four-year-old daughters were taken from me by the state last April. Until that case is overturned, or my parental rights are restored, this is where I’ll stay.

When most people hear “the state took my kids,” their minds jump to the worst conclusions. These cases are quiet and the courtrooms are closed, so I don’t blame you for assuming I was beating them up, or looking the other way while they were abused, or some other such nightmare scenario you see on the Lifetime channel. Those kinds of cases happen, but far more common are the ones where parents do their very best but still come up short on money for the heat, or the rent, or a licensed babysitter. My case is one of those, in which a little more cash and sympathy would have kept my daughters with me.

Three-quarters of substantiated child maltreatment cases are related to neglect, and the kind of neglect that triggers a CPS case is almost always the result of poverty. Although each state gets to set its own specific definitions for neglect, they typically center around deprivation of things like food, shelter, clothing, or medical treatment, which are problems almost totally exclusive to poor people.

The accusation that brought child services into my family was related to drug use. My mother-in-law, with whom I’ve never really gotten along, called the child abuse hotline and told them she suspected I was out using heroin while she watched the kids.  After a series of urine and hair panels tested negative, child protective services broadened their investigation. They raised concerns about the fact that I was living with my in-laws, and that I had been unable to attend trauma therapy for a month while I waited for my new state insurance to go into effect.

The investigation lead to a dependency trial, where the investigator made it clear that my daughters showed no signs of abuse or neglect. I lost anyway. There are no juries involved in child welfare cases, and the burden of proof is lighter than in criminal cases: It only requires a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means the judge’s ruling depends on their personal opinion. In this case, the judge didn’t think I was a credible witness, so she ruled against me.

This means that my daughters now live with my in-laws, and I am legally barred from being in their home after 8 p.m. I get two supervised visits per week while I navigate a web of random drug tests, mental health evaluations, parenting classes, and trauma-based therapy — the details of which get reported back to my case worker, the state attorney, my daughters’ guardian ad litem, and the trial judge — in an effort to win back custody.

If I had been in a different city, or a different state, things might have turned out a lot differently. Child protective services is an umbrella term used to describe individual local agencies. They are governed by standards set at the federal level but operate independently in each state, and city-level jurisdictions set their own policies to manage reports of neglect or abuse. This means that location plays an enormous role in CPS response. Families who live in an area experiencing an economic boom are more likely to receive support, like help turning the water back on if it was shut off for nonpayment, while families in more depressed areas are less likely to have resources available to them. Because of the subjectivity of these cases, it’s likely the politics of the judges and caseworkers play a large role as well.

I’ve experienced this difference first hand. This time last year, I was living in Seattle. When I overdosed during a brief relapse in 2016, the King County child protective agency inquired about my family’s financial difficulties. After learning that the relapse had been prompted by legal difficulties with my abuser — for which I could not afford representation — they referred me to an agency that was ultimately able to provide me with an attorney pro bono. When I disclosed that I was having difficulty accessing trauma therapy because I could not afford child care, they helped secure placement for both of my daughters in a free, comprehensive daycare. And when I told them our utilities were pending shut-off, CPS paid the portion required to keep them running. My daughters did not spend a single day out of our home, and our lives began to improve.

But Seattle is a very wealthy area, with a high cost of living. When my husband had a mental health crisis that prevented him from working, we had to move somewhere more affordable and closer to his family. That somewhere ended up being Broward County, Florida. The economic differences are stark: Seattle’s median household income is almost 50 percent higher than Broward’s, and its minimum wage is nearly twice as high. Although it can be hard to catch your breath in Seattle if you’re poor, there are more avenues for help available than in Broward, and the CPS response between the two areas reflects that. In Seattle, we were given a chance to recover. In Broward, it was assumed we wouldn’t be able to.

The investigator made it clear that my daughters showed no signs of abuse or neglect. I lost anyway.

Josh Michtom, a Connecticut public defender who represents child-welfare involved parents and children, says that poor families have the most difficulty when they come under CPS scrutiny. “Starting from the beginning…poor people as a general rule live a little closer to the edge. Scrambling to and from daycare, hurrying from job to job or job to home, living in more precarious housing or housing that isn’t as well kept-up…it’s not to say all poor people are neglectful or abusive, but run the simulation a hundred times and it’s going to come out with more things that raise an eyebrow for a teacher or daycare worker or hospital worker [who are mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect to CPS].”

According to Megan Martin, vice president of public policy at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the “vast majority” of child welfare cases are poverty related. Martin also points out that the numbers may not even fully capture the extent of the relationship between poverty and child welfare involvement. She says that the official figure, which links 47 percent of cases to poverty, measures families who are financially unable to meet their basic needs. (For example, a parent who does not have the means to heat their home in the winter.) But that doesn’t include other issues related to poverty. She uses the example of inadequate supervision, a common factor in child removals that has gained some past media attention.

“If you can’t afford child care and don’t have other resources like family to watch your kids, you might end up with a nine year old watching a two year old,” says Martin. “When kids are removed for inadequate supervision, that’s not necessarily included in that 47 percent.”

In his practice, Michtom also struggles with the huge cultural divide that often exists between mandatory reporters and many parents living in poverty. He describes how something such as a parent deviating from the typical upper- or middle-class vernacular may lead a teacher or pediatrician to subconsciously distrust the parent and therefore ascribe malicious intent to something like a bruised knee or unkempt clothing.

Even using that vernacular can count against parents who don’t look the part. At the end of my trial, the judge cited my “skill with language” as her reason for disbelieving my testimony, adding that I could “sell ice to an Eskimo.” My advanced education and ability to communicate clearly should have benefited my case, but coupled with my poverty and substance use disorder diagnosis, it led her to read me as a con artist instead.

“Middle- and upper-middle-class people have a language and way of talking to professionals that seems ‘good and responsible,’” Michtom observes. “When a kid has a completely not abuse related injury and the school nurse calls the parent and says ‘can you explain this?’ and the parent maybe doesn’t speak English as well or just seems less trustworthy to this middle-class nurse in a way maybe the nurse can’t quantify, then the nurse says ‘I have a duty to report this.’”

Once an investigation is opened, the family’s life is picked apart. Even if the original allegation turns out to be unfounded, a myriad of other factors — issues that may not have been enough to prompt a call on their own — can be used against the parent. In my case, the state obsessed over the fact that I didn’t have my own housing, despite the fact that more than one-third of adults were living with their parents in 2015.

I remember the shame and anxiety I felt doing something as simple as going to the playground.

Michtom believes that cultural differences between investigators, judges, and other people involved in the substantiation process directly affect how even small deviations are perceived. “If you don’t know what it’s like to be poor and you don’t know what it’s like to make the compromises poor people have to make,” explains Michtom, “the wrong social worker calls them deplorable or filthy even if it was just messy or cluttered, and that increases the likelihood that it leads to a court petition [for the child’s removal].”

As he says this, I remember the shame and anxiety I felt doing something as simple as going to the playground, where my daughter’s coats, though surely warm enough, looked dingy and stained next to the kids running around in clothes so absurdly bright they looked like something out of a cartoon. My anxiety wasn’t just based on embarrassment; it was also couched in the visceral fear that people would assume I was a bad mom because of something as simple as clothing my daughters in used coats.

Parenting in poverty creates a cycle of factors that compound each other. For my family, an inability to pay for child care or legal aid in 2016 created a snowball of stressors that ultimately led to a relapse and almost killed me. This year, when we were managing to get by, a sudden unexpected health emergency sent us spiraling right back into the system.

As I continue to fight for the return of my daughters, I can’t help but wonder what it would look like to have a uniform child welfare system that recognizes these types of complexities. Maybe my daughters would be with me now. Maybe my husband would be on a road to wellness instead of struggling alongside me to find permanent housing. Maybe the other 3 million families involved with CPS would flourish and thrive. Maybe parenting in poverty would stop being so hard.



California Already Has a Housing Crisis. The Fires Just Made It Worse.

California is on fire. Again. The state’s 2018 wildfire season has been devastating, and it’s not over yet. The dramatic Woolsey and Hill fires scorching the hills around Los Angeles are still being brought under control, and first responders are battling the Camp Fire in Butte County, which has killed at least 56 people and torn through 140,000 acres and more than 10,000 structures.

Recovery from wildfires can take years, and for affected communities, one aspect is especially pressing: Housing. California’s housing prices are infamously high, and in Butte County, this problem is particularly bad. With 19.5 percent of the county living below the poverty line, explains Ed Mayer, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the County of Butte, many households are heavily rent-burdened.

Five of his 36 staffers from around Butte County lost their homes in the blaze and many others are housing friends and family left houseless by the fire. The Camp Fire was most devastating in Paradise, where 95 percent of the city’s residential and commercial buildings are gone, says Mayer. The county as a whole lost a staggering 10 percent of its housing stock in the Camp Fire.

“Prior to the crisis, we had a vacancy rate of maybe 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent,” he says, estimating that Butte had approximately 1,000 units available around the county before the fire. That’s far short of the 6,000 households, including some receiving housing assistance, that will be looking for new homes after theirs were destroyed. Evacuees from Paradise are predominantly low-income elders and disabled people who settled there for a unique combination of affordable housing (by California standards) and access to medical services, he explains, a situation they may struggle to find elsewhere in the state.

He fears low-income residents may leave the state altogether, while others may be left doubling up with friends and family or moving in and out of shelters and the street. Mayer even raised the prospect of “tent cities” akin to those seen during the Dust Bowl to accommodate desperate residents, some of whom are already camping due to the lack of sheltering options. The local alternatives, like neighboring Oroville, are unlikely to meet the needs of evacuees — 60 percent of Oroville renters are already paying more than 50 percent of their income in rent and utilities every month. Oroville was also in the headlines in 2017 for its crumbling dam, which itself may be threatened by the fire.

Rents tend to spike after disasters

“This is not the first time this has happened,” Mayer says, noting that Butte County reached out to officials in Santa Rosa, where last year’s Tubbs Fire destroyed nearly 6,000 structures, including in low-income neighborhoods, to learn more about how they handled losing five percent of their housing stock to a fast-moving wildfire. The lessons from Santa Rosa and surrounding Sonoma County may prove to be instructive for other communities in the state facing similar catastrophes.

In the weeks and months after the Santa Rosa fires, rents began soaring, and so did property values, though Governor Jerry Brown instituted temporary price gouging protections that led to at least one successful prosecution. Construction costs also began to rise, further crunching homeowners attempting to rebuild and complicated by a proliferation of unlicensed and unqualified contractors flocking to the area to take advantage of property owners eager to start rebuilding.

In Santa Rosa, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat estimated the housing crunch caused by the Tubbs fire drove some 7,000 people to leave the city of 175,000, and over 1,000 fled the county altogether — some, tragically, for Butte County. Renters particularly struggled, with working-class people and undocumented immigrants heavily represented amongst those scrambling for housing.  According to the industry-supported Insurance Information Institute, only 37 percent of renters carried renters’ insurance for their homes, which left many renters with limited resources to replace belongings, let alone find new homes. Long, uncertain waits while property owners determined whether and how to rebuild were compounded by housing scarcity and rising prices, making it hard to stay in the area in the aftermath of the fire. Sonoma County was ultimately forced to declare a homelessness crisis to access funds for people experiencing homelessness, with rates climbing six percent in the aftermath of the fire.

Yet, even with an obvious crisis, Santa Rosa voters just rejected a $124 million bond measure designated for affordable housing.

According to CoreLogic, rents tend to spike after disasters, as illustrated in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as the Tubbs fire. Delinquencies also increase as impacted residents fall behind on their mortgage payments, and something else happens too: Property tax revenues drop, at the precise moment counties and municipalities need that money most. Another Santa Rosa ballot measure, which passed, approved a temporary sales tax increase to provide funding for emergency services, offsetting some of these tax losses. But sales taxes are regressive: they place the highest burden on the people who are most likely to need the support.

These trends are highly predictable, yet communities are still unprepared for them.

Devastating wildfires are no longer shocking exceptions

The Camp Fire is the deadliest in California history, but devastating wildfires are no longer shocking exceptions. They are the status quo for the Golden State, which has hit the frontlines of climate change just like hurricane-wracked communities across the country in the South. Another CoreLogic study estimates over 48,000 homes are at risk from wildfires in California, many in communities that have already burned before, sometimes multiple times. California’s own Climate Change Assessment, released in August of this year, found that the number of acres burned by fire throughout the state will increase by 77 percent by 2100 as a result of impacts from climate change.

Decreasing rainfall is desiccating already fire-prone environments right as the wind kicks up in the summer and fall, and all it takes is a spark from a flat tire, poorly maintained electrical line, or bad hot tub wiring to ignite a fire. Embattled utility company Pacific Gas and Electric has already taken the unprecedented step of temporary power cuts during periods of high fire risk in an attempt to avoid sparking another conflagration, and a group of Camp Fire survivors just filed suit against the utility, claiming it played a role in the fire that took their homes, though the cause remains under investigation.

“I don’t know,” says Mayer, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts. “There’s major decisions facing the community.” It’s a sentiment echoed across fire-prone California, from Santa Rosa officials agonizing over whether and where to approve new developments to the fire evacuees roaming the aisles of drugstores far from home in search of replacement toothbrushes.