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Residents irked they can't return to homes after fire

by Heather Cassell

Journey's End residents Carlton Willis, left, and Victor "Vic" O'Teri, partners for 61 years, joined neighbor John Triglia, right, outside of Willis and O'Teri's home in the Journey's End mobile home park. Photo: Heather Cassell
Journey's End residents Carlton Willis, left, and Victor "Vic" O'Teri, partners for 61 years, joined neighbor John Triglia, right, outside of Willis and O'Teri's home in the Journey's End mobile home park. Photo: Heather Cassell  

Some gay residents and others of the 44 mobile homes that weren't destroyed by the Tubbs Fire when it ripped through the Fountain Grove neighborhood in Santa Rosa last fall were furious to learn that they won't ever be returning to their homes.

Ramsey Shuayto, the owner of Journey's End mobile home park, announced last month that he would not rebuild the park, reported the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Instead, Shuayto partnered with Burbank Housing, which is also working with the city of Santa Rosa's Housing and Community Services, to build new low-income senior apartments on the site, according to media reports.

At that February 10 meeting, 75 residents were in attendance, including LGBTs whose homes are among the ones that survived the blaze. They were dismayed to learn that the mobile home park wouldn't be rebuilt. Instead, the site will be cleared to develop a new mix of affordable and market rate permanent housing, according to Larry Florin, chief executive officer of Burbank Housing.

"Burbank is partnering with the owners of the mobile home park to move forward with a permanent affordable housing project on the property," wrote Florin in an email to the Bay Area Reporter. "The residents who were displaced by the fires will have the first rights to occupy the new affordable units once they are completed."

Florin confirmed that the nonprofit housing organization doesn't have any solid plans for the park at the moment. Organization representatives currently working on the project are trying to gain access to analyze the site to see if utility services can be restored.

Residents have changed the locks, preventing the organization entry into the park, and have staged protests outside its gates.

Building a new complex could take up to five years, according to Jenny Yao, volunteer leader of the Tzu Chi Foundation, which, with its own team of building and legal advisers, inspected the site following the fires to see if it could be restored. The team found the site was toxic and the infrastructure was destroyed. It also deemed that restoration was cost-prohibitive, Yao told the B.A.R.

Despite the issues, the owner was attempting to avoid selling the property with the intent to retain it to provide affordable senior housing.

The foundation is aware that the residents don't necessarily have five years to wait, can't afford to pay more than what they were paying, and don't want to live in apartments if that's what's created out of the agreements being negotiated with Burbank Housing, Yao said.

The residents whose mobile homes are still standing but are uninhabitable don't have answers for what will happen to their homes or how they will be compensated if they are unable to return to the park, they said.

Residents who qualify for relocation assistance will receive something, but that hasn't been determined yet, Florin wrote.

"As part of that process Burbank has to enter into agreements with those residents who are entitled to relocation assistance," wrote Florin. "Those discussions will occur shortly."

Understanding the residents' vulnerability during the difficult recovery period, the volunteer-based foundation turned its focus to providing ongoing emergency assistance. The foundation has distributed nearly $700,000 in emergency cash assistance, counseling, social services, connecting residents with the Bay Area Legal Aid, and even researching relocating them to a new mobile home park in the area, Yao said.

Yao noted that there is no space in the 41 mobile home parks in the Santa Rosa area due to the housing crisis. Compounding the issue, the high market rate, even for low-income housing at the parks, is more than double what Journey's End residents were paying pre-fire.

Residents' concerns
John Triglia, a 91-year-old bisexual man whose mobile home is still standing at Journey's End, called around to other mobile home parks in the area to see if he could move his home.

"They would not accept any mobile homes that were not brand new. They had to be absolutely brand new," he said.

"No matter how much we do, the situation is very complicated," said Yao. "So dynamic [it's] changing every day."

Fire victims whose homes burned down have been able to receive assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations, but the residents of the remaining mobile homes that have been deemed uninhabitable by the California Department of Housing and Community Development haven't been as fortunate.

In the letter to mobile home owners, Shuayto didn't mention what the plans were for the homes that have been red tagged and sitting on the land, vacant, since October.

"Our strongest desire is that we ensure that the need for senior affordable housing that was served by Journey's End will be met through whatever redevelopment occurs at the park," the letter stated. The letter also stated that Shuayto would continue working with community organizations to assist with services, including housing placement and rental assistance, during the recovery process.

Yet, that still didn't answer LGBT residents' questions about their homes that still are standing.

"They have not told us what they're going to do with the remaining homes," said Victor "Vic" O'Teri, an 89-year-old man who lived with his partner of 61 years, Carlton Willis, 85, in a well-kept brown mobile home with white trim that they own outright.

The two men have been drifting since they haven't been able to return to their home, they said. Willis has very bad osteoarthritis and is recovering from pneumonia, O'Teri said.

Triglia, who lives diagonally across from the men with his dog, Sophie, has been living out of a hotel after the senior housing his nephew found for him in Napa was too far away from his doctor's office.

The men are a few of the LGBT residents of the park. Many of the residents have left, with some moving far away, while others have died since the fire, the men said.

Triglia, who has lived in the park for three years, keeps returning to his mobile home to tend to his rose garden. He imagines that nothing has changed, even though the fire came right up to the row of mobile homes behind his home and his prized roses.

"It's like I'm having this grand illusion that nothing's changed," said Triglia. "I'm just pruning my garden like I normally would do."

O'Teri is under no illusion. He wants answers.

"We want to get back into our homes," said O'Teri, who said they have attended every meeting the owner has held.

Triglia agreed, adding, "When your 91 years old you don't want to be out there waiting your turn. You want something now, so you don't worry."

The men aren't interested in apartment living.

"We do not want to live in an apartment. We're too independent for that. We want to live in our own home," said O'Teri. "We need to find out what they plan to do with our existing home. That is paramount."

Triglia, who is still paying a mortgage on his home, hopes that he will receive some type of settlement so he can find another mobile home to move into, he said. He already has volunteers ready to help him move his 65 rose bushes if he can't move back into his home, he said.

"I've been to the school of hard knocks," said the soft-spoken Triglia. "Life has never been easy. This is one more little dilemma to work out."

Yet, even with his quiet demeanor, he's frustrated too.

"Give us a break. Buy these damn houses. Give us our money so we can move on," Triglia said he would like to tell the owner of the park.

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