MIAMI NEW TIMES

September 15, 2017

 

Homestead Migrant Farm Workers Neglected After Irma Until Activists Raise Alarm

 

BY JERRY IANNELLI

 

The South Dade Center is a subsidized housing project for the huge farmworker community in Homestead, the rural town south of Miami that has been repeatedly blasted by hurricanes since Andrew hit in 1992. Most of the area's residents are of Mexican or Central-American descent and make little money working in the sun-baked fields and plant nurseries that feed the rest of Florida.

Now, many residents in the South Dade Center say Homestead has abandoned them since Hurricane Irma hit: The center flooded and lost power over the weekend, and residents and activists who spoke to New Times say they haven't seen a single power-company truck even scope out the neighborhood all week. Homestead operates its own electric grid independent of Florida Power & Light, and residents and activists describe the center as a sun-baked sauna where it's cooler to sleep outside and get bitten by mosquitoes than it is to stay indoors.

Just after noon yesterday, a group of activists with the Florida Immigrant Coalition and other groups started blasting Homestead officials with calls and social-media posts, demanding the city help the residents of what the city calls the "South Dade Labor Camps." (Perhaps change that name, guys.)

The push seems to have worked: By 3:30 p.m., the site's administrator told New Times that the neighborhood was slated to get its power back by Sunday night. Hours later, at around 6 p.m., Homestead updated its projections, and said the area's electricity will likely be fully restored by tonight.

Mere hours after the tweet-storm began, Salma Jaramillo, a relative of someone who lives in the center posted online that trucks were finally beginning to arrive, after residents said they hadn't seen any sign of them for days.

Jaramillo's grandfather lives on the property, but she said he left town for vacation "long before" Irma hit. Today, she stopped by the complex to make sure his apartment is okay, and says she saw that fallen trees are still wrapped around power lines and children are picking up debris from the street in lieu of professional workers.

"This community seems like it’s been forgotten," Jaramillo told New Times. "There's still a lot of trash here. It's really, really hot. The houses are made from cement blocks so they heat up really fast."

She said the residents she's spoken to have no idea when HPS Energy, Homestead's power company, plan to arrive and start fixing things. She added that the city only sent garbage trucks to the Center today, five days after the storm hit.

"These people, you can see them just sweating," she said. "They're out here in shorts. They have no choice but to stay outside, because it's really hot inside. I tried contacting the main office but I was not given a straight answer."

HPS Energy did not respond to a call from New Times today. But Brandy Ramirez, the Homestead Housing Authority manager for the site, said HPS has promised residents to have the entire city's power grid back up and running by Sunday night, the same timeframe FPL gave the rest of Southeast Florida.

"They posted that on their website, assuring all houses within city limits would have power back by then," Ramirez said yesterday. "They assured us this does include the South Dade Center and assured us the Center is on their big board of places to get done."

In the meantime, Ramirez said city officials plan to hold events in the coming days to assure the Center's residents they're not invisible.

"I've seen some city officials go out and assure those families they’re not forgotten and that there's power coming their way soon," Ramirez said. "Thank god, we're getting a lot of support from the city, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava’s Office, and we're going to bring food for families, ice, everything."

The Homestead Housing Authority operates four total housing complexes subsidized for poor farmworkers. One of the four sits on FPL's power grid, while the rest get electricity from HPS Energy.

Jonathan Fried, a worker's-rights activist with the immigrant-rights group WeCount, said via phone that residents don't feel as assured as the Housing Authority claims.

"The place is in a floodplain, and flooded, but the bigger problem is that there's no electricity," he said. "Homestead Electric has done a pretty good job in the rest of Homestead, you can see the trucks everywhere. But people are seeing no work being done here."

He said he spoke to one pregnant woman who said she chose to sleep outside after it became too hot to stay in their home, and the windows didn't open enough to ventilate the place. She said that two nights ago, she received so many mosquito bites that she was unsure where to sleep last night.

"She's thinking of going to Homestead Hospital's emergency room," Fried said.

He added that the city held a meeting with Homestead Vice Mayor Patricia Fairclough at 4:30 p.m. to better inform residents about the status of the city's relief efforts.

Ramirez, at the housing authority, said the city is doing all it can to bring the power grid back as fast as possible, but local residents said they felt confused as of 3:30 p.m. today.

By 6 p.m., the City of Homestead confirmed with local activists that help was finally coming.

"HPS Energy is working right now at South Dade Labor Camps," the city tweeted. "Power restoration is expected no later than Friday."