MAXWELL:  Ordered out of house and home

3/21/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Imagine this scenario: You are a legal, hard-working 40-year-old farm worker from Guatemala. You and your wife, a 38-year-old Guatemalan, have been in the United States for more than eight years. The two of you saved enough of your combined $16,000 annual income to buy a lot and a dilapidated mobile home. You both have limited knowledge of English.

Your daughter, 13, and your son, 10, both speakers of English, attend a local public school. They are good students and never get into trouble.

The trailer, more than 15 years old, needs repairs that you cannot afford. You and your wife leave home at 5 a.m., as you do each weekday this time of year, and catch a van to the strawberry fields where you pick all day, returning home at about 5:15 p.m. Curiously, the kids are not inside watching television. They are outside sitting on the makeshift bench beneath the only tree in the yard.

As you approach, the girl points to the green sticker that a county code enforcement investigator has pasted near the door: “NOTICE, This Building Is Declared Unfit For Human Habitation And Ordered VACATED. It Is Unlawful For Any Reason To Enter This Building.”

You and your wife panic. You have never been in trouble with the law and will not start now by going inside the trailer. The sticker says that you had better not. Now, your wife sobs and hugs the children. You and your family abandon the trailer and go to the home of friends across town.

Your world has fallen apart.

This scenario is not imaginary. It is reality for 25 farm worker families in this tiny agricultural town in southern Hillsborough County that recently were greeted by “vacate” stickers like the one described above. Don Shea, the county’s operations manager for community improvement, said that the condemnations are part of a countywide effort responding to complaints about deplorable housing conditions.

Shea, who directs the office of code enforcement, said he was especially concerned about properties with multiple mobile homes on them, where unsanitary conditions and safety violations decrease “quality of life.” Some people in the neighborhood in question live in dangerous sheds. Shea is careful to note that this area of Wimauma is not the only section of the county being targeted.

For government officials such as Shea, condemning property _ ordering residents to either fix up their property or move out _ is merely a part of their job, said Rocio Rocha-Smith, unofficial spokesperson for Wimauma’s farm workers. But for her and the six other members of her extended family, Shea’s efforts are life-changing.

The family returned home one afternoon last week to discover a “vacate” sticker pasted on their trailer.

Rocha-Smith, 27, a graduate student in public administration at the University of South Florida and a program supervisor with Mental Health Care Inc. of Ruskin, is not a troublemaker. She is, in fact, vice president of the Wimauma Civic Association, the very organization responsible for trying to beautify the town.

For Rocha-Smith, a native of Brownsville, Texas, the story behind the condemnations is a human tragedy caused by bureaucratic insensitivity.

“Basically, I have a conflict of interest,” she said. “I believe we should beautify. I know that the city has a valid point and a formal process that people must go through. But what happens to those people who you just put out of a house, those who can’t afford to fix up their place or move? I want to know about plan B and C. What happens to you when your home is gone?”

Rocha-Smith said that she is angry because the man responsible for pasting the stickers on the homes, Jim Ellington, chief inspector for Hillsborough code enforcement, expressed a calloused attitude toward the residents’ plight. Ellington, in a telephone interview, deflected questions to his superiors.

“He told me that it’s “just an inconvenience. Everybody can start over. Everybody can buy a home as long as you own the land,’ ” Rocha-Smith said. “I couldn’t believe he said that. It’s true for some people but not for most. My family is fortunate because, although our home has been condemned, we own the land and can start over. But it will be hard for us, too. If it’s hard for us, think of how it is for people who don’t have anything. Jim Ellington offended us by calling this just an inconvenience. It’s our homes _ our lives. It is not just an inconvenience.”

Whenever the government throws the lives of the poor, especially farm workers, into disarray, children suffer the most, as is case in Wimauma. A teacher with the migrant education program said that 10 percent of the farm worker children at one middle school alone are missing class to translate for their parents as they seek new housing. Other children are staying out of school to help their parents pack and move.

How many children are affected, no one seems to know. In visiting just seven of the 25 condemned trailers, Rocha-Smith said that she counted 30 children.

For many of the residents, especially those who do not speak English, getting assistance is a nightmare. Even the warning letter the county mailed to the residents is misleading. In addition to announcing the condemnations, it lists non-profit organizations that the residents should contact for help. The problem? None of the organizations can help these people.

Evan Jorn works with Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma, and he is chairman of the South County Coalition for Community Concerns. He said that the nine organizations listed, including Catholic Charities, did not know why they were included. When he called code enforcement, officials could not give him a straight answer, he said.

Jorn is particularly upset because the “vacate” sticker, which says that the property is unfit for human habitation, does not tell residents that they have at least 30 days to move or make repairs.

“Many people were too afraid to enter their homes and went elsewhere,” Jorn said. “They are law-abiding pickers and were too afraid to cross the line because the sticker said do not enter. I called Mr. Shea, and he said that if residents had been home when his inspectors arrived, his people would have explained to the residents that they had some time. But if they are not home, all they see is the sign. That is causing a lot of people a lot of sleepless nights.”

Shea said that legal residents can apply for assistance through his office. Qualified renters, for example, can apply for the federal rent subsidies, and owners can apply for other aid. He said that only a small number of residents have contacted his office. Some residents refuse to telephone his office because they may not be qualified, while others simply do not want to participate in government programs, he said.

Rocha-Smith offers yet another explanation: “These people work 40 hours a week. Some used to get government subsidies but are now trying to build their lives and homes without government help. Now the government is demolishing their homes and telling them to get government help. You’re putting people back into the cycle of dependency that they worked their way out of. All of us work full time, and some of us go to school part time. We don’t want to be in the cycle.”

The county has every right to bring properties up to code, but officials should temper policies with fairness and understanding, especially when dealing with those who have nothing and are being thrown out of their homes, Rocha-Smith said. “The problem is that people don’t know the history behind other people,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going on in the lives of farm workers, the tragedies and hardship. For example, my brother died last year, and we had to basically give all the money we had to the funeral. Do officials know that? Do they care?

“Do they know that my parents’ house burned down and that they couldn’t rebuild completely? No. Unless you’re in the family or care to find out what’s going on, you won’t know. If officials knew the history of these farm workers, they wouldn’t call uprooting them from their homes an “inconvenience.’ “