‘They just forgot about us’: a US motel of climate refugees with nowhere to go – photo essay


If you were to drive through Medford, a small city in southern Oregon, you’d pass by an unremarkable motel. You’d see guests sitting out on their balconies, smoking cigarettes, walking their dogs across the small patch of lawn, and watching the kids laugh and play in the pool.

But these people aren’t typical hotel guests. They are 159 fire refugees, displaced after losing their homes during one of the worst fire seasons the west coast has ever experienced. As the climate crisis causes higher-than-normal temperatures, dry conditions and strong winds, Oregon and California are facing more intense blazes than ever before. This new breed of fires is destroying entire communities – the 8 September 2020 conflagration known as the Almeda fire, for instance, decimated two towns in southern Oregon, torched 2,700 houses and displaced 3,000 people.

Every room in the 123-room motel is housing for survivors of that disaster. (To protect the guests’ safety, the Guardian is not naming the hotel, and the names of some guests have been changed.)

Zoya Strebel, 37, is one of those people. As the fire closed in on the home she rented with a roommate, Strebel had minutes to escape with her chihuahua, Professor Watts, and her bike. Everything else was lost. “There’s no more trailer park any more,” she says. “There’s nothing there.” She’s been living at the motel for 10 months.

For Strebel, who spent years homeless before making enough money selling jewelry to get off the streets, losing her home means losing a chance at building a stable life. Now, she wonders if this motel is her last stop before ending up on the streets again. “I was trying to go back to school, and making money selling jewelry. I wasn’t a loser. I was productive. Now I have nothing to show for it,” she says.

She found out that the trailer park where she lived is being sold to a new owner and is hopeful they might rebuild and allow her to come back. In her motel room, Strebel has put a curtain by the front door for privacy, wrapped a net around the balcony so Professor Watts doesn’t fall off, and stuck glow-in-the dark stars on the ceiling. She writes affirmations on her mirrors to help her stay positive. But mostly, she waits.

Strebel isn’t the only one. Each motel guest has their own story of loss and displacement and must grapple with the same unbearable uncertainty. For years, experts have warned of a mass migration due to climate breakdown. Now, as sea levels rise, weather patterns change and natural disasters become more frequent and more devastating, we may be seeing that migration first-hand. Some experts have already linked the Almeda fire to the climate crisis.

‘Fire weather’: dangerous days now far more common in US west, study finds Read more

Strebel’s downstairs neighbor, Traci Williams, lives with her husband, who broke his back years ago. Williams, a nurse for 34 years, has multiple sclerosis and a rare brain disorder. Before the fire, they had caregivers around the clock. For the past nine months, they have had to make do with caring for each other. “We’ve just got to hang in there,” Williams says. A family friend stops by to help when she can. Still, Traci has fallen down the stairs twice while taking their clothes to the upstairs laundry room. She hopes to leave the motel within three months, but she doesn’t know if that’s realistic. “Sometimes I feel like we’re lost, like they just kind of forgot about us,” Traci says. “But I don’t know what we expect them to do, either.”

Simón Galvan, 33, barely had time to warn his wife, who was nine months pregnant, and load their two other young children into the car before the fire destroyed their mobile home in Phoenix, Oregon. For weeks after the fire, the whole family slept in the car in a Walmart parking lot. Now the five of them share a small motel room. The new baby, who was born after the fire, doesn’t have a crib and Galvan worries she will roll off the bed in the night.

Galvan also worries that he’s gotten lost in the system. He says it’s been months since he’s heard from his caseworker. Mostly, he just hopes he’ll be able to find an affordable apartment. “This is not a good place for kids,” he says in Spanish, through a translator.

Ellen Simonsen, 68, saved for years in order to buy a mobile home to share with her disabled son. Her hope was that after she passed, her son, who is 40 and has always lived with her, would have the financial security of owning a home outright. When the fire destroyed their home, it destroyed that future as well. “My dreams of being able to go to my grave knowing my son is going to be OK are gone,” she says.

At first, Simonsen hoped to buy another trailer but the demand for housing after the fire meant that she could no longer afford one: “Trailers from the 70s that have asbestos are selling for $100,000 now – it’s just ridiculous.” Similarly, the mobile park where she and her son used to live has nearly doubled the rent. “I don’t want to minimize what people have done to help the fire victims, but it’s the same story of capitalists getting richer and the poor getting poorer,” Simonsen says. “ I considered myself middle class. Now I’m homeless. In the blink of an eye.”

As the year anniversary of the fire approaches, Zoya Strebel wonders if the motel residents have been forgotten. The Oregon department of human services told the Guardian that less than one-third of Almeda fire survivors were eligible for a trailer provided by the federal government, but that apartments and mobile homes provided by the state would become available through the end of the year. “Much like the rest of the west coast, Oregon was already in a housing crisis, with limited vacancies,” noted a spokesperson, Jake Sunderland.

“I’m slipping between the cracks,” Strebel says. “I can feel it.” Meanwhile, another dry, hot summer exacerbated by climate change has meant new fires are burning in southern Oregon, bringing smoke and heightened anxiety. When she takes Professor Watts on a walk, Strebel can’t see from one end of the park to the other. “It’s really bad,” Strebel says. “My anxiety is sky-high.”

To escape the smoke, Strebel spends her days inside her motel room with Professor Watts, taping motivational quotes on the walls. “I write my goals all over my walls, everywhere, to remind me that this isn’t home – this is just temporary.”