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Temp housing for migrant workers boosts economy; still raises concerns

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – A private room and a clean bed to sleep in; running water (including showers), electricity, and prepared food; These are the conditions migrant workers are living in at 5024 West Western Avenue in South Bend.

They also have fully functioning air conditioning, which is more than the people living at 628 West Western (the 6-story high rise run by the Housing Authority of South Bend) have had for the better part of the last week.

And unlike the apartment complex at 628 West Western, the air in the building at 5024 does not assault the olfactory glands of anyone who steps inside it. There is not even a hint of mustiness one would expect of a building that has set unused for so long.

Yet, South Bend Common Council member Oliver Davis is concerned about the safety and wellness of those living there.

ABC 57 talked to Julio Cruz, of Mi Casa Rentals Wednesday. According to Cruz, the building which used to be a medical facility, has sat vacant for quite a while.

When Mi Casa Rentals found out the building had a new owner, they toured it and pitched the idea of offering centralized housing to migrant workers who would be in the area for about 6 weeks in the middle of the summer.

The owners gave them a green light to use the building, as long as they cleaned it up and prepared it for living conditions, according to Cruz.

And that’s what they did, said Cruz. The company brought in a cleaning crew who disinfected everything, including the mattresses, according to Cruz.

Then they partnered with Servants of the Street (SOS), a faith based ministry out of Elkhart that primarily works with people struggling with addiction.

The ministry cooks meals for the migrant workers every night, selling them a generous portion of food for $7.00, 100 percent of which goes back into the ministry.

Housing at the old medical facility is paid for by the migrant worker’s employer, but these are just some of the benefits Cruz explained.

The biggest benefit is the sense of community this provides the workers, according to Cruz.

For years, Mi Casa Rentals has been providing housing to migrant workers using their own properties.

But this separated them into small groups that did not generally interact with each other or their neighbors.

By bringing all of the migrant workers together, Cruz and his partners hope to generate a sense of community.

But more than that, they hope to spur an economic boost in the area.

Instead of shoehorning several people into one home in the middle of a neighborhood, the 100+ workers, wives and children are within walking distance to several restaurants and gas stations.

Anecdotally, employees and managers of the businesses nearby have noticed the migrant workers and an increase in sales.

The McDonalds across the street from 5024 West Western has seen a big increase in evening diners, many of which are getting back from a long day of working in the fields.

Meanwhile, there is security personnel at the building 24 hours a day.

Because the majority of the workers are not at the building for most of the day, Mi Casa has set up three 8-hour security details to keep an eye on what is going on in and around the building.

The organization Mi Casa has set up is straight forward, as are the rules.

No drinking alcohol. No smoking in the building (and only in designated areas outside). No fighting anywhere.

Guests are expected to keep their bathrooms clean. And they are offered dinner between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

The operation has been underway and working well, according to Cruz, for three weeks. He expects it will be another three before the migrant workers move on to their next destination, or head home.

Cars in the parking lot have license plates from Kentucky, Delaware, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia, Mississippi, and Georgia. But the majority of them are from Florida.

One migrant worker staying at the building is Herbert Palmer.

Jamaican born, Palmer received a pass to come to the U.S. in 1973 to work a sugarcane field.

The next year, he was asked to return to the U.S. because of the hard work he put in the year before.

Palmer ended up sorting his paperwork out and became a resident of the United States a few years later.

Since coming to America, Palmer has been a migrant worker, preferring to work in Florida where he started.

But finding work in the orange grooves during the summer is nigh impossible, and Palmer wanted a change of scenery.

So he came to Indiana with a friend to work the cornfields.

Many migrant workers start in Florida, picking oranges; then they head north to North Carolina to pick tobacco; then east to Indiana for corn, Ohio for tomatoes, or Michigan for apples.

And when the harvesting is over, they go home; wherever that may be. For some it is in another state, for others, working on visas, it is Haiti; Mexico; Central America; even South America, according to a list Cruz has seen.

And when the migrant workers are gone, in three weeks time, Cruz believes the owners of the building plan to begin remodeling the building to reopen it.

For Mi Casa Rentals and their partners, this has been an experiment to see if their idea of providing a safe, secure place for migrant workers to live, while they broke their backs in the fields harvesting our food, could become a reality.

According to Cruz, this has been a success, but not without its hiccups.

A representative from the fire department did tour the building and pointed out several things that needed to be fixed. Those issues have been addressed according to Cruz.

In addition to that, the South Bend Community School Corporation has visited the site in an attempt to interest migrant worker’s families that have children with them to get the kids to attend a type of summer school designed specifically for children of migrant workers.

The program is funded by state grants and the school district is working to secure another grant to offer another session starting Monday and lasting until August 10.

Meanwhile, Oliver Davis has called a joint meeting of the Zoning and Annexation committee and the Health and Public Safety Committed for Tuesday evening at 5:00.

Davis has invited Charles Bulot, Building Commissioner; Catherine Toppel, Head of Code Enforcement; Fire Marshall Federico Rodriguez; Interim Police Chief Chuck Hurley; a representative of the St. Joseph County Health Department; and a representative for the owner of the property, to the meeting.

The meeting is supposed to focus on health and wellness concerns, as well as building and zoning concerns, according to Davis.

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