The last days inside Trailer 83

As climate disasters increase, a last-gasp FEMA camp for wildfire survivors tests the government’s obligations to the displaced.

Mike and Crystal Erickson's trailer at the FEMA park in Chico, Calif.
Mike and Crystal Erickson's trailer at the FEMA park in Chico, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

CHICO, Calif. — Mike Erickson had been living in the trailer park for 341 days when he saw the new sign. It was unmissable, a blue billboard at the entrance to what had become a place of last resort for families made homeless by the worst wildfire in California history. Its message was unmissable, too. In 12 days, the site would be closing and everyone would have to be out.

Mike knew who had put it there. The same agency that had carved this trailer park from nothing after the 2018 fire, transforming a 13-acre field between a cemetery and a set of train tracks into a haven for survivors to start rebuilding their lives: the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Nearly a hundred families lived at the site at one point, but one by one they had been moving away until on this day in September only a handful were left. Mike’s trailer was at the farthest end. There were no streets here and no addresses, just small numbers glued to the sides of trailers. His was 83.

He trudged back through the gravel, wondering what to tell his wife. “I thought by now we’d have something figured out,” he said.

Sixty years old, Mike had arrived at this moment because of a FEMA program intended to be among its most merciful, but which has become fraught with challenges in a time when whole communities are being wiped out by unprecedented wildfires and storms.

When survivors are left with nowhere to go, the government sends FEMA to give them free housing, typically for up to 18 months after the date of the disaster. The agency has provided emergency trailers to nearly 200,000 families over the past 15 years. But now, with disasters and the needs that follow them increasing, the government finds itself trying to decide what it owes the displaced. How long is truly long enough to shelter the most vulnerable? Is it sufficient to give them housing or do they need social services, too? And should an emergency management agency really be playing landlord for years at a time in the first place?

For Mike, the looming question was more urgent: What would happen after these 12 days?

Inside the trailer, his wife, Crystal Erickson, 60, was lying in a hospital bed that took up most of the small living room. Partially paralyzed from a stroke and unable to navigate through the gravel with her wheelchair, this is where she spent all her time.

“What’s up, honey?” she asked.

“FEMA came by. Same thing as always,” he said, trying to sound relaxed. But after 35 years together, she knew when something was wrong.

Mike took her hand, patted it and let go. “Just trust me,” he said.

* * *

Mike and Crystal were in this park because their home had been destroyed by the kind of wildfire that was once unheard of in the United States but that now, after so many others — the Dixie Fire, the Caldor Fire — seems almost routine. Known as the Camp Fire, it had started before dawn in November 2018, raced through terrain made tinder-dry by drought, burned down almost every house in the mountain town of Paradise, and killed 85 people and displaced 50,000, including Mike and Crystal. They were among the last to evacuate and had driven through thick black smoke listening to the pop of propane tanks exploding.

Afterward, FEMA had to decide what to do with the people like the Ericksons had just become — survivors without insurance, without means, who had never been homeless before but were now.

It wasn’t clear at first that the government would build a trailer park. FEMA had turned away from those after the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, when families lingered in flimsy, formaldehyde-tainted mobile homes. The agency experimented instead with making emergency repairs directly to survivors’ homes. It also partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to give families rental subsidies and mandatory case management to connect them with social services.

By 2013, the FEMA trailer park had gone almost extinct. But under the Trump administration, the agency returned to building entire communities of trailers from scratch, saying the alternatives were costly and inefficient. The Government Accountability Office later found it was impossible to evaluate this claim because FEMA doesn’t systematically track costs or outcomes for its housing programs. The national council set up by Congress to advise the agency immediately called on FEMA to resurrect its direct repair program, and elected leaders from hard-hit states asked FEMA to bring back its HUD partnership.

But FEMA continued to see trailer parks as the best option, at least for the time being, saying in a statement: “FEMA is evolving. We are not the same agency from 10 years ago, and we will not be the same agency in 10 years from now.” As a result, thousands of families were soon living in trailers again, including at the Chico site, which cost more than $300,000 per trailer to set up. Mike and Crystal moved there in September 2020. Before that, Crystal had spent six months in the hospital, while Mike had bounced between motels and campsites. They also lived temporarily at a different FEMA site. But Trailer 83 seemed to offer a kind of stability they hadn’t experienced since before the fire.

The place came with rules, one of which said tenants had to submit proof every fifteen days that they had applied for at least one permanent housing option. Every fifteen days, Mike turned that in, along with the results: nothing. Rental vacancies had fallen to less than half of 1 percent in Chico as 20,000 fire survivors crammed into a city of 90,000. Mike wrote personal letters to landlords of wheelchair-accessible apartments but didn’t hear back. When he went to sign up for affordable housing, he learned that the waiting list was three years long and closed to new applicants.

Now, with 11 days left before the deadline to move out, Mike flipped through a notebook where he’d written down the names and numbers of every official he had spoken with since the fire. As he began making calls, he fidgeted with his hair, which he used to wear in a buzz-cut but had grown out into tangled curls.

The first person he reached was a young woman at a social services agency. He told her about who he had once been: a man who had coached his son’s Little League team, held a steady job, owned a home and had lost that home in 2016, buried in medical debt after his wife’s stroke. He said they moved to a rental with their 18-year-old son, who helped care for Crystal while he worked. He explained their son had initially moved to Trailer 83, too, but FEMA had said he couldn’t stay because he wasn’t on his parents’ paperwork, and that with no one to help Crystal during the day, Mike couldn’t work, and so they were living on her disability payments of $2,800 a month — $1,799.31 of which FEMA was now billing them for because a few months earlier, overwhelmed, he had missed turning in proof of his fruitless rental searches.

By the time he got around to telling the woman that they were about to be evicted, she was letting him know that she couldn’t help. “We don’t really have room for new cases,” she said, but offered to connect him with another nonprofit.

“Okay, I sure appreciate it. Thank you,” Mike said.

After a while, Crystal fell asleep and Mike slipped out for a walk. There was no greenery at the site, no shade, and no color aside from the green trash bins outside each home. He walked past Trailer 46, where a small woman who liked to keep to herself peeked through the blinds. Past Trailer 11, where a father, preparing to move out, was trying to scrape off the glow-in-the-dark stars he’d put up for his kids. Past Trailer 7, where a FEMA eviction notice fluttered on the door, warning, “We have not been able to contact you by telephone and must speak with you right away.” Mike knew that the man who lived inside had a hole in his trachea and couldn’t talk.

When he reached Trailer 32, a snarling German shepherd ran at him. The dog had bitten him twice, but Mike liked visiting with its owner, Jay Rose, who was stacking boxes in the truck he used for his job hauling portable toilets.

“You mind if I ask if you found a place to go?” Mike asked.

“No, just putting stuff in storage,” Jay said. “I’m gonna be the last one in here.”

Mike told Jay about his efforts to find a place. “I’m so fried now, it’s hard to even make contact,” he said.

He didn’t want to stay too long. He’d left his phone charging and worried about missing a call from someone with a lead. He hurried back, climbed the steps and checked his phone in his bedroom. No calls.

* * *

Mornings in the trailer often started the same way: With Crystal hearing tires rolling on gravel and Mike looking out to see if it was FEMA. With nine days to go, Crystal heard that crunch as Mike was making coffee and braced herself, but it was only a garbage truck. “I’m surprised they’re still taking the trash away,” Mike said, and dropped the curtain.

But there was someone from FEMA there, on the other side of the park. Housing task force leader Sharon Rodarte had come to check on the last tenants. These were always the hardest cases — the families who left behind wrecked appliances, or walls full of holes, or towering piles of junk and trash, or in one case a dead dog. “Some people aren’t grateful,” she said when she walked up to Trailer 7 and discovered that the man who couldn’t speak had moved away overnight, leaving behind a broken pipe that was gushing water beneath the unit.

Now she headed toward Trailer 83. Crystal heard the crush of tires and a knock at the door. Rodarte explained that she was there because she had a phone number for the Ericksons to call — “our housing navigator for trying to find homes for people who are going to be homeless.”

Mike grabbed his notebook and stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He had written the word “deficient” in it, and he looked down and read from the page. “You know this place is deficient for us,” he said.

“Okay, I don’t want to get into this,” Rodarte said.

But Mike was off now, listing the things that had made life so difficult in the trailer. No roll-in shower. No way to cool the place below 78 degrees. No washer or dryer, even though it wasn’t safe to leave Crystal alone to go to a laundromat, which was why there were five garbage bags of laundry sitting by the door.

“I’m gonna go,” Rodarte said. “Just give the man a call.”

“Okay, just walk away,” Mike called after her. “Thank you for being so courteous and respectful.”

Back inside, Mike regretted getting mad. “I’m exploding over nothing lately,” he told Crystal, who instantly blamed herself. She had been more emotional since the stroke, cycling through feelings of calm, fear, anger, grief, and now another emotion took hold, this time making her cry. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry,” she said.

“It’s not your fault, you know that. You didn’t start that fire,” Mike said. He turned on the television for her and gave her a sippy cup, the kind a child might use, with two shots of brandy.

When he called the housing navigator, he got an automated message saying that the phone system was down. Mike hung up and looked out across the park. He wondered, how have so many people figured this out?

That evening, there was another knock at the door. This time it was their daughter, Rita. She’d lost her home in the fire, too, and, like their son, was barred from the extra trailer bedroom. She lived a few blocks away, in a tent under an oak tree. Paradise fire survivors make up about a third of Chico’s growing homeless population, and many had moved into the 100-person encampment where Rita was staying. Rita didn’t talk about all that went on there, like the man who had been stabbed to death in a fight a few weeks earlier as she watched with horror, prompting her to start carrying a hunting knife in her bra and another in her backpack.

When she walked in, Crystal’s mood changed again. “Give me a kiss,” she called.

* * *

There were tasks Rita did almost immediately whenever she visited. She combed Crystal’s hair, trimmed her fingernails, gave her sponge baths.

Mike did everything else. He checked Crystal’s blood sugar five times a day. He made her meals and helped feed her. He put fresh bandages on the bedsores she’d been developing. And sometimes he left her alone, as he did one morning with seven days left before the deadline. He tried to get out every day to clear his head, even if it was just to hit a few golf balls and watch them skip across the gravel.

Before he left, Crystal asked him to straighten her in bed so she could breathe better. “I think I’m a little cockeyed today,” she said.

“You’ve been cockeyed for years,” he said, teasing.

Some things Crystal only let herself think about when she was alone, like how badly she’d deteriorated since the fire. After her stroke, she had still been able to sit up on her own. But with no physical therapy in more than two years, she’d grown weak and rigid. The only person who had come out was a nurse who monitored her blood-thinning medication for a while, then said she had to stop because the gravel was damaging her car.

Crystal had worked in nursing homes, and made Mike promise that he would never put her in one. It was an easy promise for Mike to keep. He’d grown up with distant parents — an alcoholic father and a strict mother — and had wanted his own family to be close and loving. But people with disabilities are often unnecessarily institutionalized after natural disasters, especially if they are poor, according to a 2019 report from the National Council on Disability. Crystal didn’t think she could avoid long-term care much longer. Lately, she was sleeping with the overhead light on because of a dream she’d been having in which she had been sent to hell for being a burden on her family.

When Mike got back from the store, she told him about how she was longing to see trees and grass. “I feel stupid for wanting that,” she said.

“It’s not stupid,” Mike said, and proposed they at least go out to the porch. It was a 10-minute process to get her out of bed by himself. He rolled her back and forth to get her into a net, which he then attached to a lifting machine. He began pumping a lever to lift the net into the air. When Crystal was suspended, he maneuvered her toward a wheelchair, and then hit the lever again to lower her until she could sit.

Outside, the air was dry and full of ash from two wildfires burning nearby. Minutes passed. She was smiling. Then she looked uncertain. Then she was in pain from her bedsores and started crying. Then she was calling out for Mike, who had gone inside to do the dishes.

He rushed her back in and hoisted her in the net as her crying turned to screaming. “Oh God, just do it,” she screamed, suspended now above the bed. But Mike was afraid of letting her fall and was so focused that he didn’t hear the crunch of approaching cars.

It wasn’t until someone was knocking that he looked out and saw two FEMA security guards and two women who were strangers. “Give me a minute,” he yelled. But the knocking got louder and so Mike paused and threw the door open, revealing Crystal suspended in the net, clothed in only a T-shirt.

“You might as well get a front-row seat,” Mike said to the group. The guards looked aghast and took a step back. “You want to know why we haven’t gotten out of here? I’m doing this all day long.” Mike slammed the door. “You’re doing good,” he said to Crystal as he lowered her into bed and pulled up her sheet.

When he opened the door again, the guards had retreated to their cars and only the two women remained. They said they were from a disaster case management program and wanted to help Mike apply for a subsidized apartment. “FEMA just reached out to us, with the site closing in a week,” one of the women said. “We’re here to support you.”

Mike felt a flood of relief. He invited them in, apologizing.

“Please do not apologize,” the woman said. “My heart is feeling for you right now.”

She helped Mike fill out an application and said she would get them signed up for food stamps, too. She suggested the Ericksons might be able to buy their trailer and move it somewhere permanent, because FEMA generally auctions them off at the end of housing programs, with bids sometimes starting at a few hundred dollars.

Another mood shift for Crystal, as she thought of a trailer park near her son and how nice it would be to see him more often.

The sense of hope the women brought with them carried over into the next day, and the day after, five days to go now, as the Ericksons waited to hear about the housing application and another stranger arrived at their door. Word had started spreading among Paradise survivors about their case. The visitor said he’d heard that Crystal lived in a hospital bed and couldn’t even shower. He had come over on his own with a large rubber tub for her.

He and Mike wrestled the tub inside, moving bags of laundry to make it fit. Soon, the trailer was filled with steam from hot water and the comforting smell of bath soap.

“Oh, that feels good,” Crystal said after Mike had put her in the net and maneuvered her into the tub. She waved her arms beneath the surface of the water, transfixed. She could feel her hands and legs unclenching. She started splashing. “Do I get to stay here forever? Till they move us out?” she asked. Mike smiled. “Soak as long as you want,” he said.

They went to bed feeling better than they had in 349 nights. And then came the next day, four days left, when the good feeling began to drain away.

* * *

How is hope dashed? In three conversations.

First, the women came back and explained that the Ericksons couldn’t buy their trailer because FEMA wasn’t selling them to survivors who had failed to provide regular proof of rental searches.

Then, another case manager stopped by and told them that they hadn’t qualified for the apartment. Their income was too low. And there was nothing else to apply for. “Trust me — we have looked everywhere, in every town. We are in a housing crisis in this county and we have literally tried everything,” she said.

And then a FEMA supervisor called to say that if the Ericksons were not out by the deadline, they would be trespassing and he would call the police. “I’m sorry about it, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “We’re at the end of the game. It’s really in your best interests to move on.”

Mike felt his temper rising, but spoke softly so Crystal would not hear. “We’d love to move on,” he said. “We’re not here because we love to be here. You know that, right?”

“Well, we have done everything we can under federal law, as FEMA, to help you out,” the supervisor said.

Two days left to go now, and FEMA workers were showing up to collect keys from the remaining tenants, including Jay Rose, the man who had predicted he would be the last one left in the park.

The inspector who completed his walk-through waited with her finger on the circuit breaker until he microwaved a last frozen breakfast sandwich. “Good luck,” she said as she flipped off the power. He had 10 days paid at a motel, and then would be sleeping in his truck.

Away went Jay. Away went his snarling dog. Away went everyone else, and by that evening, the only trailer left in the park with anyone still home was the one where Crystal was in her hospital bed and Mike was on the porch when a truck pulled up.

The man who got out had dozens of colorful tattoos over his arms and legs, and he handed Mike a business card that said “Stephen Murray: Camp Fire Survivor/Supporter.” He explained that he had helped others facing eviction from FEMA parks and had heard from a friend of a friend that the Ericksons were about to be put on the street. “I’m going to at least try to get you in a hotel for a few nights,” he said before he left.

What an unbelievable place this is, Mike thought as he leaned with his elbows on the porch railing. Created out of nothing. About to be nothing again. And his last version of hope coming down to a man who had the slogan “Stephen Murray Spreading Love” tattooed on his biceps and etched into a rubber bracelet, which he had slipped off his wrist and onto Crystal’s.

For three years now, it had been one strange and heart-rending thing after another, going back to those first weeks after the fire when Mike was living at a campground and had seen people clutching blankets and struggling to speak coherently.

“I used to look down on them and think, ‘Can’t you pull yourself out of that?’ But now I can’t pull myself out of it, either,” he said.

Mike needed to go in and check on Crystal, but he kept staring at the moon, which was glowing red through the fire smog.

“I don’t condemn them anymore,” he said. “I didn’t understand how far you can go down, I guess.”

* * *

One day left now, and when Mike woke up, he was struck by how quiet the park had become. In that silence, his phone rang.

“Finding a handicap hotel room in California is hard,” Stephen said. “But I’ve got one.”

And just like that, the Ericksons had a place lined up. It would be for a week. Stephen said he would pay for it. He had also rented a storage unit and would send someone for the hospital bed.

“Thank you,” Mike said, and then told Crystal that they had a place to go.

“It’s got sidewalks, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” Mike said.

She tried to picture it. “I’m so excited to get out of here,” she said.

Mike had some boxes saved, and he started taping them together. He didn’t need many. There wasn’t much to pack, mostly donated clothes and kitchen supplies.

“You’re always so organized,” Crystal said, watching Mike fold up her blankets.

“Not this time,” he said.

He taped together a new box and tossed in a pair of pliers that were among the only things they’d saved from the fire, a self-help book about managing stress and the notebook with his FEMA information.

It didn’t take long. An hour and 14 small boxes. Now that they had a destination, Mike arranged for a paratransit bus to come.

He rolled the lifting machine through the trailer for a last time, swung Crystal in the net and lowered her in the wheelchair. A few more minutes and he had the bed stripped and disassembled. Nothing more to do but sit and wait.

“Way too quiet in here,” Mike said, and unpacked the radio so he could listen to music.

At last, there was the sound of tires on gravel, and a friend of Stephen’s took the boxes and the bed. Another rumble and the bus arrived.

Mike followed Crystal down the ramp, leaving the trailer door open. He helped strap her in and paid their fare. As the bus began rolling away, Mike looked out the window, taking everything in one last time, while Crystal squeezed her eyes shut.

“I don’t want to look around. I can’t stand this place,” she said.

Mike was remembering the early days when they first moved in, before their son left. “The kids not being able to stay with us, that just tore our family apart,” he said.

As they approached the entrance, Crystal glanced back at the lot. “I liked it better when there were all those trailers,” she said.

“It made a great driving range to hit the golf balls,” Mike said, and with that, the bus passed through the fence and turned right, and the Ericksons were gone, except for a few things they had left behind. A lawn chair, a fan, a mirror, a mop. All of it noted by a FEMA inspector who came later that day. “Okey-doke,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot worse.” The deadbolt didn’t work, so he pulled the front door shut and pronounced it good enough. “We’re finished,” he said, and hours later, as night settled in, Trailer 83 was a shadow in a dark corner of an empty lot. There was nothing to break the silence as midnight came and then went and the park was officially closed. The housing program was over. FEMA had fulfilled its obligations to the displaced.

At the motel across town, Crystal was asleep and Mike, who had been so excited when they arrived that he jumped into the pool with a whoop, lay awake in bed. They’d ordered pizza and watched a movie, and when they got tired, Crystal had asked Mike to leave the overhead lights on. Now, as she slept, he stared up at them, thinking that they couldn’t afford to stay beyond the week Stephen had booked.

They would need to find somewhere to go. He had six days left to figure it out.