Excited to see if a gift package for her 6-year-old granddaughter had arrived, Theresa Engle stepped outside her apartment to check, when she saw flames that had engulfed the neighboring units headed her way.
“That moment was pretty scary,” said Engle, 55. “We didn’t have shoes on, and we just fled.”
She and her granddaughter rushed down the street and watched alongside other residents as the Railroad Fire burned through two buildings in Newhall’s Terrace Apartments.
The late-July blaze burned 10 acres of brush and damaged at least 14 apartments within the two buildings. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries and scores of people were displaced, including Engle’s household.
The family of three — Engle, her boyfriend and her granddaughter — spent one last evening in the home gathering salvaged belongings before they found themselves without a place to live.
“Since the fire, we’ve been homeless,” said Engle. “We’ve been having a difficult time finding a place.”
The day of the fire, Engle said, their apartment lease expired, and they had no renter’s insurance, making an already difficult situation more challenging as they had to requalify. As the family suspected, their credit history hindered them from qualifying, not only with sister apartments but other locations as well.
The family then had to resort to spending several nights in motels, before moving in with a friend into a spare bedroom in a small, two-room apartment in Newhall.
The fear, however, is Engle may lose custody of her granddaughter.
“She lost her home while living with her parents,” Engle said. “Now she’s with me and she lost this home because of the fire. If we don’t find a home quick, I’m at risk of losing her because of this.”
Like Engle and her family, thousands of others have had a difficult time finding a new home due in part to major disasters in California like wildfires and mudslides, said Dana Vanderford, homeless services deputy for county 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
In Sonoma County alone, the homeless count increased 35 percent following the October 2017 fires, according to a report by the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.
“This is common,” she said. “It takes just one unplanned extraordinary event to lead to homelessness.”
But there is help out there, Vanderford said. Under the county’s Measure H, which aims to prevent and end homelessness, services help match families with local resources like Bridge to Home in the Santa Clarita Valley.
“We can also link families to landlords willing to help and consider applicants that may have low credit scores or may not pass a criminal background check,” she said.
Vanderford added that the county is working to strengthen its outreach strategies. For example, with its latest online portal LA-HOP, information entered by a person experiencing homelessness or someone who has seen someone in need of assistance can submit an outreach request. A homeless services outreach team is then sent to the area.
As the county works to educate others on available resources, Engle’s desperate cry for help is: “We just want someone to give us a chance.”