It’s been nearly six weeks since I moved into my new house after being displaced by the Marshall fire. It’s not home yet, but it does have the most important elements: Four walls, a roof and appliances to keep me safe, dry and warm.
Settling into my new house would not have been possible without strong community support. In the aftermath of the fire, friends, neighbors and strangers quickly opened their homes to those of us without one.
People organized support groups to make “free stores” and volunteered to collect donations. They loaned us cars, laptops, phones and appliances so we could apply for disaster assistance and check in with work.
Millions of dollars in donations poured in for fire relief funds. Xcel Energy immediately found funds to offer free electric heaters as a preventative measure to stop homes that didn’t burn from freezing — even with no one living there.
Not once during the ordeal did people offering help entertain withholding it by asking victims if they were struggling with mental health disorders or if they were holding down a job. They simply welcomed us and our pets into their homes with free clothes, food, warmth and emotional support in a difficult time.
It’s taken many months to even begin recovery, but the strength of generosity we saw as a community is an incredible testament to us as Coloradans and to the power of human kindness to care for each other despite potential differences. Without a doubt, those of us who were assisted will be eternally grateful — it’s truly getting us back on our feet.
Yet having lived the humbling process of falling down and getting helped back up has left me with a nagging question: Why us? Why are we getting such immense help while others don’t?
Certainly, not having a steady home or basic items for over half a year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t have done it without help. But every day more than 9,000 people in this state face this reality daily with little, if any, public assistance or awareness. So why are victims of natural disasters more worthy of help than those who have fallen on other, more chronic hard times?
The rate of Coloradans experiencing homelessness has skyrocketed in recent years. Statewide we now rank first in the nation for growth of chronically sheltered homeless populations with an increasing rate of 266% between 2007 and 2021. Ranking fifth overall, we also land in the top three cities for veterans experiencing homelessness. Are veterans — people who literally put their lives on the line for us — any less worthy of our help than fire victims?
We’re also one of only 10 states that saw an increase in family homelessness — and we didn’t increase a little, we increased by 16%. That means children and grandparents who don’t have reliable, safe beds to sleep on every night. Why aren’t we moving mountains and millions to house them?
To reiterate, these questions are in no way meant to undermine the support the local community offered to Marshall fire victims, for myself included. On the contrary, that support was and is amazing, invaluable and needed and proof we can overcome adversity if we work together.
In this light we ought to collectively consider why our response to natural disasters often differs so extensively from how we react to chronic hardships. Why is it that, as a community, we tend to offer our selfless assistance only in extremely emotional circumstances that override our natural fears and biases?
Being aware of how these very normal human emotions can drive us to do more in some situations than in others is critical to finding solutions for others who need help — particularly when that help is harder to come by.
It’s also important to reflect on what underlies our drive to help as state officials take new steps to address the problem. This summer Gov. Jared Polis filled a new position for a special adviser on homelessness and housing, and it’s likely we can expect changes in the state’s response in the coming months.
But these changes could vary widely in approach, and without first appreciating the discrepancy of our actions due to fears and biases, any meaningful changes might prove impossible to accept.
The Marshall fire response has shown us that Coloradans are capable of immense generosity. With lives at stake each day, we can’t afford to wait for a natural disaster to compel us to act.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.