In Housing, Humble Can Mean Health Risk: Farm Workers' Trailer Parks Often Unsafe, but Alternatives Are Scarce

Article excerpt

HEALTH AND HOUSING A THREE-PART SERIES

* Part One: Rural poor make a home in California's grape growing desert.

* Part Two: Catholic hospitals focus resources on housing nearby elderly.

* Part Three: Rural elderly housing and inner city health promotion signal two routes to healthier places to live.

In Mecca, Calif., farm workers found a place so poor they could afford to live there. It is a place that brings together two aspects of the U.S. health care crisis: the working poor seeking physical and mental health care, and the contradictions inherent in the healthy dignity of owning a humble place of one's own--yet so humble as to be a health risk.

In a nutshell: "Housing is a health issue." So said John Mealy, shaded from the burning desert sun by a tried overhang outside Clinic, as de Salud del Pueblo, part of the Nueva Vista Apartments in Mecca. So say many others nationwide, groups as diverse as Mercy Housing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mealy is executive director of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. The coalition helped fund and construct the Nueva Vista complex and clinic setting.

Housing may not make it alongside diet, exercise and cholesterol levels on most lists of health factors, but "housing's a big factor in health," said medical director Dr. Rudy Alegria, inside the clinic. Poor housing translates directly into poor health because it "reflects the general financial situation, so you're going to have substandard sanitary conditions--old houses, problems with doubtful [drinking] water, diarrhea, elevated lead levels." But, he said, there's far more than that.

Not usually factored in, he continued, is the ill health associated with family stress, particularly "the mental stress from overcrowding, from doubling up." This is on top of the constant financial stress simply from being poor. Parents, said Alegria, are besieged by questions such as, "How can I make the rent? Where will we go if we're thrown out?"

And in Mecca, as the story unfolds, being thrown out of parqueaderos, low-rent trailer camps--or overcrowded housing--has been a constant threat for many families during the past couple of years. And it continues.

Los Angeles-born clinic director Alegria, 11 years in his job, said, "I have to be half medical doctor, half psychiatrist--because people haven't enough money to go for counseling."

Riverside County, Calif. is primarily a desert county so huge it runs from the Los Angeles-Orange County lines to the Arizona border 200-miles away, one of those vast stretches of mainly arid nothingness airline passengers gaze down on as their plane approaches the Los Angeles International Airport.

On its Western perimeter the county is not all poverty. Here are cities like watered, mansioned and millionaired Palm Springs. Not even an hour further east, there's Mecca, described by the housing coalition as "an unincorporated rural area with a large migrant farm worker population." It is the farm workers' own capital city of sorts in the desert.

For poverty this area ranks with the worst of the Mississippi Delta and the more depressed U.S. inner cities, even though the farm worker residents work hard at whatever jobs they can get.

Housing coalition director Mealy estimates that annual family income, with mother and father and all the kids over 16 working, is between $16,000 and $20,000 a year.

An adult farm worker, during two months or so following the harvest, and sleeping at the side of the picking fields on a sheet of cardboard or in the back of his pickup to save nightly rent money, might take home $8,000, said Emanuel Benitez, community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance, and a former farm worker himself.

Cheap trailers, cheap rents

But like other Americans, migrant farm workers do not want a life of permanent displacement. …