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AARP Foundation Helps Victims of Oregon Wildfires

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Debra Lee, executive director of The Center for Non-Profit Legal Services revisits damage from Oregon’s historic 2020 wildfires in the town of Phoenix.
Photo by Christine Dong

Eight months after the Almeda Drive wildfire tore through Jackson County, recovery has been painfully slow. The disaster destroyed more than 2,500 residences and left about 3,000 people without a home.

There were still hundreds of county residents living in hotels or temporary accommodations as of last month. Thousands are still seeking housing, along with utility and unemployment assistance.

Debra Lee, executive director of the Center for NonProfit Legal Services (CNPLS), based in Medford, has been scrambling to help county residents find a more permanent situation.

“It’s devastating for them,” Lee said, describing the look on the faces of wildfire victims when they learn how hard it will be to get back on their feet, with the coronavirus pandemic making it tougher.

“We have so much information that we need to provide,” she added.

Earlier this year, the CNPLS got a boost for its outreach efforts—a $100,000 grant from AARP Foundation to assist wildfire victims.

The foundation also gave both United Way of Jackson County and United Way of Lane County grants of $50,000.

“When a disaster strikes, few are more vulnerable than older adults,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. She said the CNPLS and United Way were ideally suited to “helping those impacted to repair their homes, access legal advocacy and obtain financial support.”

Lee said most of the people displaced by the fire were low-income older residents who lived in one of a dozen mobile-home parks along the Oregon 99/I-5 corridor. Efforts to help them have been hampered by a tight job market, limited housing and the restrictions of the pandemic.

Obstacles to assistance

Lee said documents needed to apply for help—driver’s licenses, vehicle titles and Social Security cards—are hard to replace when government works at its normal pace. But it’s become very difficult, since the pandemic had forced most local and state government offices to close in-person operations.

Jackson County was already in the middle of an affordable housing crisis before last year’s wildfires. A 2018 study found that the county would have to build 5,380 such units to meet its needs.

Data from Oregon Housing and Community Services shows that more than half of the county’s rental households spend a third or more of their income each month on rent.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oregon finished 2020 with a 6.3 percent unemployment rate—another sign the state’s economy hasn’t fully recovered from the losses suffered during the pandemic.

Lee and her cadre of paid and volunteer attorneys have helped many residents with assistance program applications and with setting up interviews with state agencies three days a week.

They’ve even helped some older adults whose recent brush with death has motivated them to write a will.

Lee said AARP Foundation’s grant recognizes the hard work the CNPLS has done for Jackson’s wildfire survivors and will provide resources to continue those efforts.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to keep folks in our community,” she said.

To donate to or learn more about AARP Foundation’s Relief Fund, visit aarpfoundation.org/disasterrelief.

Mac McLean is a writer living in Bend.

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