Finally, something is being done to help many in Immokalee living in deplorable conditions
Hurricane Irma didn’t create the substandard living conditions plaguing the rural town's poor, mostly farm-working families, but it exposed many outsiders to their plight. Now, a group has raised the money and is working to build new housing.
When Bernabela crossed into the United States from Chiapas, Mexico, with her young children about a decade ago, she did so in search of a better life. America, she was told, was filled with endless opportunities for those willing to work hard.
She saw pictures capturing the beauty of Florida and set out, arriving in Immokalee. She and her husband found work. But like others who came to Immokalee before them, they discovered there were few housing options aside from dilapidated trailers.
Years later in 2017, Hurricane Irma exposed many outsiders to the plight of people like Bernabela: the poor, mostly farm-working families in rural Collier County.
Irma didn’t create the substandard living conditions. It’s been that way for decades.
Bernabela and her children agreed to take WGCU News on a private tour of a trailer they once called home. We are not using their last names due to their status as immigrants.
From a distance, their rig looks cheery. It stands out among others in the area with its royal blue and white paint thanks to Mennonite youths on a missionary retreat after Hurricane Irma.
A neighboring trailer is infested with mold. The exterior paint it is impossible to identify because it's awash in moldy black, gray and green hues. The rig’s underbelly is crumbling.
In Spanish, Bernabela explains that her trailer was exactly like the neighboring one before the Mennonites painted the trailers and fixed some of the problems.
“All the walls were drenched with mold and bacteria,” said Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York judge whose been advocating for the working poor in Immokalee for years.
Safer Espinoza said that, after Hurricane Irma, Bernabela’s family was forced to move into a single room in the trailer so another family could move into a second bedroom. The third bedroom was rented to men.
“There were a lot of flies and a whole bunch of insects that got in at night,” said Bernabela’s 11-year-old daughter, Ashley. “It wasn’t easy to sleep either, and we didn't have any privacy or anything.”
Ashley explained how there was a big hole in the bathroom floor that snakes and other critters would use to enter the trailer: “We were scared the animals would come up in it. It wasn't very nice.”
The years her family lived in the trailer, Bernabela’s youngest daughter, Kimberly, now 8, experienced a series of health issues from the mold and bacteria. She had to use a nebulizer. Kimberly also suffered stomach problems for fear of using the bathroom.
“They had to have medical attention for that. You know, these are the things that are the unseen costs of this kind of living and what it does to people, what it does to families and what it does to children,” said Safer Espinoza. “These kids are good students, you know, they deserve a private, quiet, safe place to study and try to make a better future.”
Bernabela said she and her husband paid $1,000 a month for the family to live in one bedroom. The combined rent, including the other family and the room with the single men, was over $2,000.
When Bernabela’s pastor saw her living conditions, he took her and the rest of the family into his home. It’s temporary.
Safer Espinoza said it took no time to fill the trailer with different tenants.
“Other people are living here now, I mean, the landlords don't sleep on this opportunity to make big bucks,” said Safer Espinoza.
Now the rig fetches far more money. Each of the 10 men is required to pay $80 a week to live there.
This is what $3,200 gets:
- The wooden deck leading into the camper is not very sturdy. Some flooring feels soft as well.
- There’s a dampness in the air in some areas, and it’s stifling in other parts.
- Tile floor in one bedroom is riddled with cracks. A collage of blue painters' tape is on the ceiling. The children say it’s to keep the bugs from dropping on them while they slept.
Eddie, 17, explained it like this: “When it gets cold there's these bugs that go to the light and they have wings. And then the wings fall off and they become kind of like ants. …. They land on our bodies sometimes when we used to go to sleep.”
His old bedroom was about 9 by 9 feet. There’s a bunk bed and a single bed. Eight people were living in there at one point, he said.
There’s still a few of Eddie’s glow-in-the-dark stars left on the ceiling. “Yeah, it was, well, you know, you always need a little bit of joy or something.”
In a bathroom, he points to where a hole in the floor has been repaired. Another bathroom had a bathtub that needed to be hoisted up to keep it from falling onto the ground. Same for the toilet.
Bernabela said aside from the Mennonites, the tenants did most of the repairs over the years.
“Nobody does any repairs. The people who live here, we take it out of our own pockets. And we repair because we don't want our children to live like that,” Bernabela said through an interpreter.
Still, a bathroom window is stuck open, giving access to animals and vermin. There are also holes in walls inside the kitchen cabinets, an easy passage for frogs.
“Whenever we wanted to go cook and we look in the pan and there were frogs,” Ashley said. “… It was very gross, too.”
The family’s tour is a snapshot of substandard housing for roughly 1,000 or so of the 6,000 families that call Immokalee home.
Habitat for Humanity has built over 1,000 homes there in the past 45 years. But about 43 percent of those who apply don’t qualify for the homes because they don’t make enough money.
Enter Safer Espinoza and her husband, Arol Buntzman. They along with a dozen or so people are the backbone of the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance.
The group formed after Hurricane Irma when independent charitable organizations rushed to Immokalee to assist victims with food, water, diapers and medicine.
The more Safer Espinoza and Buntzman thought about the situation, the more they realized their efforts were just band-aids on a festering problem: the lack of safe, affordable housing.
Many advocates, though, believed Safer Expinoza and Buntzman’s dream would never happen.
“[They said], 'You can't get the land, it's too expensive. You have to have it rezoned because there's no big piece of land that (is) zoned for multifamily. And politically, it'll never happen,' ” Buntzman said.
But it is happening by individual donations from $5 to $1 million. Zero federal and state dollars will be used because of government policies on funding for undocumented people.
To date, the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance has raised about $5 million, enough for initial costs, infrastructure and the completion of the first building. The group is $1 million shy of being able to construct the second building. Each building costs about $2.8 million.
“There’s been a shortage of affordable housing in Immokalee for decades, but it was made worse by Irma and the recent hurricane [Nicole],” Buntzman said. “ … Affordable housing is the missing link to escape poverty and exploitation.”
Buntzman recently gathered with some 80 people to celebrate a wall raising for the first apartment building. In all, his group plans to build at least eight, two-story buildings that will have 16 units in each. Rent will be based on a family’s income and may not exceed 30 percent of that.
“But it's more than just dignity,” Buntzman said. “It'll change the people who get to move in. It will change everything. The kids won't get as sick as often so they won't miss school. The parents will not miss work as often. They won't have to spend 70% of their income for rent. And when you do that, there's not enough money left over for decent amounts of good food, for medicine, for clothing. But when your rent drops to 30% of household income, which is what it's supposed to be for everybody in the country, then there's is money left over for decent quality of life. And that's what we're bringing about.”
Among the first 16 families that will move into the new building will be Bernabela’s.
Through an interpreter, she says she’s very happy, she is content and filled with emotions. She says she is especially happy for the children who will have a decent place.
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