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Food for Thought: Crumbs for Migrants

January 01, 1989

The Dec. 18 article ("Breaking Camp") relating to the housing problem of migrant farm workers in North San Diego County was indeed upsetting, but not surprising.

During my four years as California state director of migrant education, I had the opportunity to visit many migrant camps and other farm worker housing throughout the state. The impressions leave a lasting dismal memory in my mind . . . as well as deep anger that our society can treat one segment of our population so callously.

To the farmer, as well as the community, the workers are an implement to be used for bringing in the crops, then to be ignored, like machinery or farm animals. They are not perceived as human beings. . . . like you and me.

Yet they are very human . . . perhaps most of them are more decent humans than many of us. They live in a close-knit family, loyal to each other, with high moral values, and of deep religious beliefs. They are a proud people, unwilling to take a "handout": welfare or social services for which they have not worked. Crime, drug or alcohol abuse is rare in these families.

Housing is always a problem. They stay in a community for only part of a year. Thus, permanent housing is out of the question. Rental payment for middle-class apartments or houses is well beyond their means. So they are forced to live in camps, caves, shacks, trailers, their cars . . . wherever. Consequently, both they and their children tend to be of poor health, with little chance to learn English and not accepted as part of the community.

During the '60s, over 20 camps were built for the migratory farm workers in the central valleys of California. The funds came from the federal government to the state, which built the camps cooperatively with the counties, which then managed the camps that were built on land donated by farmers. These facilities are fairly decent temporary housing, and far better than the alternative. Each camp houses about 100 families; and several hundred are turned away each year because supply does not meet demand.

Currently, I am on the board of directors of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. We are a small, nonprofit organization, building farm worker housing, both apartments and self-help homes. Our first two projects, built with federal and state funds, provided very decent multi-bedroom housing for 100 families, and we are funded for an additional 140 units. Five hundred families applied for the first 50 units. We'll keep building until all families are out of the ditches and shacks and filthy camps . . . or until the money runs out.

So I read about the solution used in North San Diego County: bulldoze the only housing the farm workers have been able to provide for themselves! Assure that 14,000 workers and their families are homeless. Despite the rationalizations by the local officials, this action is the most brutal which has yet come to my attention.

I guess Congressman Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) speaks for the majority of the folks in that area when he throws the responsibility for finding housing and meeting health regulations back on the migrant workers. I wish he could spend a few days living under their circumstances.

There are solutions. Let the growers, who need the workers, donate a few acres each for camps. At the state level, Proposition 84 specifically provides $10 million for the construction of migrant farm labor camps. It wouldn't take much, in terms of federal or state spending. And, provide something more decent than the current proposal down there: a 14-foot plastic unit to house a family of four. Unbelievable! Would Congressman Packard move his family into such a unit?

Just think! If readers of this letter are compassionate, or if they are Republicans who believe the private sector should solve all problems . . . if all those readers contributed $10 each; then that money might be sufficient to house an awful lot of workers who provide the food on our table, and who live worse than any other segment of our population.

But then, who really cares?

FRED WOLFF

La Quinta

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