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Disaster Case Management

The North Valley Community Foundation and its Butte Strong Fund have granted $10.5 million to help build a case management system and then provide assistance to survivors.

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Disaster Case Management

After the Camp Fire, thousands of survivors requested help through case management. At the peak in June 2020, the waiting list for assistance reached 8,318 households. The federal government approved 16 case managers, but local nonprofits stepped up to help when government funding fell short. 

Below is the story of case management and how the system developed, as well as the stories of three individuals who were able to regain hope with the care and support of disaster case managers.

The value of case management

Everything about the Camp Fire was unprecedented. That includes the puzzle of how to get help for thousands of people who needed it.

The fire on Nov. 8, 2018, caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage — and about one-quarter of the damage was uninsured. It remains the most destructive wildfire in California history.

With nearly 14,000 homes destroyed, thousands of people who suffered losses registered to get government help. They would be connected to disaster case managers, who would work with survivors one household at a time. But because case managers can juggle only about 30 cases at a time, the waiting list for help quickly grew.

The waiting list reached 8,318 households at one point. The federal government authorized 16 disaster case managers — about enough to handle 480 cases.

That’s when philanthropy and community-based organizations stepped in. They built a system that employed a peak of 100 case managers and 25 supervisors. Donations to the North Valley Community Foundation and Butte Strong Fund paid for 79 of those positions.

It took time to build and refine the new system, then recovery was slowed by a pandemic, other wildfires, shortages of labor and materials, and delays in lawsuit settlements and government funding. However, 2021 was the busiest year for “closing” cases, which means a person or household is restored to their predisaster condition.

On the three-year anniversary of the fire, the waiting list is now at zero. Not all of the 8,318 on the waiting list needed extensive case management because their circumstances changed, and the most complex cases are still being resolved. However, 4,050 cases have been closed, meaning they have reached their long-term recovery goals.

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That requires a personalized approach that is time consuming but effective.

Kate Scowsmith from the Camp Fire Collaborative at a disaster case management appreciation event.

“One thing I'm really proud of with the system we've created is that it's very accommodating to different needs, and we're very flexible to change. And so if something's not working, we adjust,” said Kate Scowsmith, who lost her home in the fire and now manages the disaster case management system under the Camp Fire Collaborative umbrella. “So much of the system was made up on the fly by all the people working within it. It was absolutely a collaboration with 10 agencies that used all of their different skills and experiences to create a system that could accommodate so many different needs at once.”

By the numbers...

8,318

Number of households on the waiting list for disaster case management at its peak (June 2020)

10

Agencies that employed disaster case managers

0

Number of households on the waiting list for disaster case management now

100

Peak number of disaster case managers

4,050

Number of cases closed, meaning long-term recovery goals have been met

16

Disaster case managers funded by FEMA

124

Average number of cases opened each month the past three years

79

Disaster case managers funded by donations to NVCF and the Butte Strong Fund

What case managers do

The first step in setting up the disaster case management system was a critical one: getting everyone on the same page. Ten different agencies have employed disaster case managers, and 13 different organizations provided funding for survivors. A centralized system meant an equitable way to distribute help.

Butte 211 developed a centralized intake system, then the Camp Fire Collaborative oversaw the process of assigning survivors to disaster case managers and brought resources together from the wider community.

Case management is about much more than connecting survivors to money. It’s about connecting survivors to resources and programs that are available for different types of individuals and needs. It’s about sitting down with each individual, finding out what help they’ve received from other sources, determining what help they still need, then figuring out how to get it.

“The reason we have disaster case managers is, it’s easier for me to do the vetting and I know where the resources are,” said Simona Gallegos, a disaster case manager employed by St. Vincent De Paul. “They (clients) can’t be expected to know everything that is available, but I do.”

“You’re the bridge. You’re their voice,” said Lydia Rojas, a disaster case manager for Northern Valley Catholic Social Service. “You’re helping them with what they need, helping them get the resources they might not know exist.”

Case managers at the Camp Fire Collaborative appreciation event for disaster case managers

Help could mean anything from getting a new set of dentures for a client who lost them in the fire to finding a new home.

 

It starts with paperwork and gathering information, helping clients navigate computer forms and filling out applications for aid. 

Disaster case managers need to know whether clients have received money from FEMA, insurance, the Red Cross, PG&E lawsuits, Small Business Administration and any other assistance program.

After that, different demographic factors help determine the type of assistance a person or household is eligible for. For example, there are different programs for veterans, senior citizens, disabled individuals, families with young children, people with severe medical problems and so forth.

Disaster case managers track income, expenses and debts, then work with the clients on a long-term recovery plan.

Many cases take more than a year to close. Almost all take several weeks. Many case managers check in with the 30 or so clients on their list about once a week.

Those who watch the case managers work appreciate how difficult and emotionally taxing the job can be.

“I see how involved case management is and how much time the case managers spend with clients, just walking through the entire system with them,” said Kim DuFour, a program officer with North Valley Community Foundation, the organization providing the most funding to support the case management  system.

“Case management is used everywhere in social services but with disaster case management, they are experiencing the trauma with the client,” said DuFour. “Case management doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s not just, ‘Here’s an apartment, now everything is better.’ It’s a long process.”
 

The job can be stressful. Everybody wants to do more, but all the help comes from donations — and donations alone cannot fix a $16.5 billion disaster. But there are many victories.
 

“The rewards are great,” said Roxanne Giron, a Camp Fire disaster case manager working for Northern Valley Cathloic Social Service. “I had a client in Concow who didn't have a functioning shower or bathroom. I found a trailer with my supervisor and we got the funding for it. I called her and said,  ‘I hope you're not mad or anything but I got you a place to live,’ and the tears just started coming on the phone.
 

“I was actually out there last week visiting her just to make sure she had everything and she was so relieved. She didn’t have to shower outside anymore and had some privacy to go to the bathroom.”
 

Words of gratitude written on paper flags in Gratitude Grove

Bringing cases to funders

The final step is for case managers to close a case. To do that, they often need to meet with funders — organizations that rely on private donations, not government funding.

The largest funder is North Valley Community Foundation and its Butte Strong Fund. NVCF committed $10.5 million to help build the disaster case management system and support clients in that system.

Case managers steer clients to various types of help, but cases are often resolved in front of one of two committees.

The most common route for case managers is to address the weekly Simple Unmet Needs Committee meeting, coordinated by the Camp Fire Collaborative. In that meeting, case managers share details on their request for funding support. After all of the week’s cases are presented, the funders talk over the cases and decide the level of support they can do. That committee initially consisted of three funders — NVCF, American Red Cross and United Way. Now there are two — NVCF and United Way.

The goal, of course, is to successfully close cases. Many factors are taken into consideration when deciding funding. There are limits to how much each funder can approve and equity is a key consideration.

The cases in front of the Simple Unmet Needs Committee generally are limited to about $15,000. Anything more than that goes to the Complex Unmet Needs Committee, which consists of 13 funding organizations — NVCF, American Red Cross, United Way, Sierra Nevada Resiliency Fund, Bidwell Presbyterian, Community Action Agency, Golden Valley Bank, Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Social Services, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, St. John’s Episcopal, United Methodist Committee on Relief and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

At those meetings, each funder will chip in what they can to help bring a case to a positive resolution.

"Perhaps what is most compelling about our disaster case management system is that no matter where you look, or who is participating, at all angles you will find a steady sense of hope and determination for recovery,” said Scowsmith. “Our collective vision for healing and thriving as a community has seen us through more wildfires in our area and a global pandemic. Despite so many hardships and setbacks, all participants in our system — survivors, case managers, funders and others — keep moving forward and continue to contribute toward a better future. This investment is nothing short of inspiring."

Words of gratitude written on paper flags that says "Grateful for everyone who is apart of this. Thank you"
 

Larry Halstead's Story 

After Larry Halstead and his family lost their home and all their belongings in the Camp Fire, it was hard to imagine things could get any worse. Then they did.

Living in temporary situations in Sacramento and Mendocino counties, the family maxed out credit cards just to eat and live. His terminal cancer that was not being treated caused his health to decline. He became estranged from his wife and children.

The end game, he thought, came when he was living in a tent in Bidwell Park and on Comanche Creek in Chico.

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“I never gave myself more than a 50/50 chance at best of surviving the last year and a half,” he said in October. “And frankly, it wasn’t until I met Jesica that I even got as high as 50 percent.”
 

Jesica is Jesica Giannola, who is a case manager for Youth for Change. She met Halstead in the Comanche Creek camp. Halstead, like Giannola, is an advocate for individuals who are unhoused.
 

As a case manager, she knew of programs and funding mechanisms that could help someone like Halstead, who checked several boxes for qualification (Camp Fire survivor, terminally ill, homeless, on disability, senior citizen). He received six months of assistance to rent a room in Magalia, then received help to buy a computer and camera so he could resume work as an independent photographer and videographer. He’s getting cancer treatments and just finished extensive dental work.
 

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In a few short months, the despair where he was constantly wondering “What the hell just happened to me?” has been replaced with confidence and anticipation.
 

“What one case manager did changed my life and gave me hope,” he said. “At least I’m still in the game because of her and because of the funding.”
 

David Lesher's Story 

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David Lesher lost his retirement home in the Camp Fire and wasn’t sure what to do next.

The 72-year-old veteran stayed in motels, then on property in Santa Rosa owned by a family member, and finally back closer to home in the Glenn County town of Elk Creek. But he wanted to be back home in Magalia, so he and his grandson, who is blind, parked a trailer and a motor home on their scorched property.

Then his daughter and his case manager went to work, trying to replace what was lost.

“There was a lot of paperwork, a lot of phone calls,” said Lesher. “Miranda and my daughter made it happen.”
 

Miranda Comfort, a case manager with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the North Valley, helped wade through the possibilities. Lesher qualified for help because he is a disabled veteran on a limited income, caring for a dependent who is disabled.

Funders pitched in to help him get a manufactured home and furniture. The effort was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic and complications with a homeowners association, but the manufactured home was placed on his property in October.
 

“It took more than a year after the first time I saw Miranda,” Lesher said. “It’s wait, wait, wait, wait … then it started to take off. And once it started to take off, everything was just falling into place.
 

“It’s amazing what’s in the background, all the people. You don’t really see what’s going on, but so many people are donating their gifts and their talents to people they don’t even know. They just know there are people out there in need of help, so they help.
 

“So many people have gone through such loss … and different agencies have helped people come back to their normal lives — even better than before, in a lot of cases.”
 

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Scott Murray's Story 

In October 2018, Scott Murray, a 25-year Paradise resident, made his last payment on his home in the Sherwood Forest Mobile Home Park. He owned it free and clear.

Murray earned a few dollars each month doing maintenance work at the park. One more paycheck and he would buy home insurance.

 

The Camp Fire arrived before the paycheck did.

“I lost it all,” he said. “All I could do was wait and hope things would come together. It’s been a slow, painful process.”

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Murray was a team captain at the mobile home park, meaning he would help everyone get out in a fire. The evacuation worked perfectly in the Camp Fire. Everybody survived. He was the last one out, escaping with a neighbor who didn’t have a vehicle. Orange embers were landing on his pickup. So was melting plastic from the overhead utility lines. As he left the park, he looked in the rearview mirror and saw his home going up in flames.
 

He ended up in Santa Rosa. Just before the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, Murray was evacuated again by the Kincade Fire. He hooked up his trailer and came back to Paradise where he has been ever since, living on charred, vacant property owned by a friend.

He was all alone on that property in a neighborhood that was decimated. Now the neighborhood is building up again -- and Murray is getting ready to go back to Sherwood Forest, which is also rebuilding.
 

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He first connected with a case manager, Katie Conley of Northern Valley Catholic Social Service, about a year ago.
 

“I wasn’t too sure how it was going to go,” said Murray. “They said they were willing to help me out. … I had no idea they wanted to help me get a home.”
 

There have been hiccups. First the Unmet Needs Committee approved funding for a used mobile home, but it needed too much work. The committee then approved a new mobile home. A construction analyst for the committee, Karol Freeze, is working to find one.
 

“They’ve been so good, so supportive. Katie Conley and Karol always keep in touch with me. I love them to death,” said Murray.
 

The Sherwood Forest Mobile Home Park has already set aside a prime space for him in a green area they call “The Glen.”
 

“It’s been a real rollercoaster ride. You know when you lose everything … If you would have heard me a year and a half ago, I was just a blubbering mess, having nightmares and having flashbacks. Seeing the town now starting to develop, and hearing the Grocery Outlet is coming and a doughnut shop is coming. That’s where I’m going. I like my doughnut and coffee in the morning. A lot of homes are being built. Friends who moved out of the area want to come back. We are getting our routines back.”