Local Presbyterian leaders look at immediate and long-term support
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – One of the hardest hit areas during Hurricane Irma was Immokalee, Florida, home to thousands of migrant farmworkers who pick the vegetables sold to restaurants and grocery chains across the country. The poor living conditions for the families went from bad to worse as high winds and flooding knocked out power, damaged homes and left many with little food.
Peace River Presbytery operates a mission in the community (Mision Peniel). Volunteers and presbytery staff joined members of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team to visit with residents and assess needs, both short and long-term.
“They were hoping and praying we would show up because they know Presbyterians are experienced in long-term recovery,” said Graham Hart, executive presbyter with Peace River Presbytery. “When we came in, there was a beehive of activity as people sorted clothing and started getting ready for the afternoon hot meal.”
Hart says the community has four levels of need. The first need is for sustainable goods such as food, hygiene products and children’s diapers. The second need, according to Hart, is power. Efforts are underway to secure enough generators for refrigerators and freezers.
“Migrant workers are lucky if they have one or two days’ worth of food to begin with, let alone enough to sustain them through a hurricane,” he said. “Once the electric goes out, everything is gone.”
Hart says the third level of need is long-term, including the development of a community garden.
“There is enough land behind Mision Peniel and the landlord has given permission for a garden there so that’s what we are working on,” said Hart. “The irony is these workers pick thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables for others and they’re good farmers, but they don’t have a plot of land to raise their own vegetables.”
One question for residents now is whether to establish individual gardens or one large one for everyone.
The fourth level of need and one of the long-term projects will be housing. Most of the farmworkers live in substandard trailers, many of which were damaged by Irma.
“The units are deplorable and the workers are charged rent by the week or month depending on how long they work the area,” said Hart. “Over the long-term, we hope to create partnerships and come up with alternative, affordable and appropriate housing for the migrant community.”
Hart says a family of five on average will pay up to $300 a week for housing and he adds many of the trailers have multiple families living there. “Housing is a long-term issue.”
The Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP) has facilitated the denomination’s accompaniment and advocacy with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) for years in its fight for fair wages and better living conditions for farmworkers.
“The CIW’s Community Center was miraculously undamaged, but the hurricane had a devastating impact on the homes of people in Immokalee,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, PHP’s national associate. “With most of the community living in mobile homes and half of the community below the poverty line, the ability to rebuild is severely limited.”
The CIW has played a large role in the efforts to prepare the community and continues to play a crucial role in the aftermath.
“As we know from New Orleans, Houston and in Immokalee, impoverished communities with poor housing are drastically more vulnerable to hurricanes,” said Kang Bartlett. “The housing stock is mostly trailers and rather flimsy wooden shacks and houses.”
Kang Bartlett says such disasters underscore the need to continue to stand with the farmworkers and others as they organize to improve wages and build community resilience.
“Last year, the PC(USA) was the first major denomination to endorse the Wendy’s boycott with the goal of helping to bring this major tomato retailer into the Fair Food program,” said Kang Bartlett. “This program ensures human rights and higher wages to eliminate farmworkers’ long-term vulnerability.”
Despite the current living conditions and the slow return to normalcy, Hart believes the residents of Immokalee are coping as best they can.
“I saw patience and gratefulness that people care. This is one more thing that has impacted their life so they continue to live on the edge,” said Hart. “There is concern about their livelihood and how the storm may have impacted the crops they work.”
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the emergency response and refugee program of the denomination, committed to the long-term journey of recovery of communities adversely affected by a crisis or catastrophic event. It is funded by the One Great Hour of Sharing and raises designated funds for responding to specific disasters.
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