By Rick Burnette
On September 10, 2017, Category 2 Hurricane Irma inflicted considerable damage on Immokalee, Florida, an unincorporated farm town in southwest Florida where most of American’s wintertime tomatoes are grown.
With a local poverty rate of almost 40 percent, farmworker residents labor long hours in the fields just to make minimum wage. Pay is barely enough to cover rent, much less to cover remittances for relatives in Guatemala, Haiti, and Mexico.
Within days after the storm, various disaster response agencies engaged in relief and recovery efforts, including the distribution of food, water, clothing, and tarps. However, as farmworker rental housing overwhelmingly consists of old, dilapidated mobile homes, in many cases there was little that agencies could do for repairs.
Despite the terrible condition of farmworker housing, local nonprofits documented cases of rent having been tripled or quadrupled. Rent for many low-income and very low-income households can be as high as 70 percent of their household incomes, often leading to overcrowded conditions as workers attempt to share costs.
On top of outrageously high rents, even though millions of pounds of fruit and vegetables are transported away from Immokalee’s commercial farms every day, much of the community is classified as a food desert, which means nutritious and affordable groceries are difficult for residents to access.
Since 2018, CBF Global Missions has maintained a ministry presence in Immokalee through the food security efforts of Cultivate Abundance, a Global Missions Engagement Partner.
In association with Misión Peniel, a farmworker ministry of the Peace River Presbytery – PC(USA) – that provides various community services, Cultivate Abundance manages a donation garden in support of Misión Peniel’s food pantry. Combined with three dozen local partner gardens, Cultivate Abundance has grown, collected, and shared over 34 tons of nutritious food with the Immokalee farmworker community through Misión Peniel.
In response to the farmworker housing crisis, for over three years, several agencies, and local nonprofits – including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Peace River Presbytery, Misión Peniel, the We Can’t Have That Foundation, the Presbyterian Disaster Agency, and the United Church of Christ – have been collaborating through the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance.
With a goal to develop safe and affordable housing options for Immokalee’s farmworkers, the Alliance began making plans to purchase land on which to construct safe, comfortable, and affordable housing for a minimum of 100 farmworker families with additional units for single workers.
Property, however, is very expensive in Immokalee and not everyone is in favor of the Alliance’s efforts. During the first attempt to purchase suitable land, four local landlords joined forces to block the sale.
Fortunately, in 2019, an adequate tract became available, requiring the Alliance to work quickly to raise $500,000 needed for the purchase. Along with other church-affiliated disaster response organizations that contributed towards this recovery and housing effort, CBF Disaster Response approved a grant of $5,000.
Such involvement is in line with resilience-building efforts associated with the Four Rs of CBF Disaster Response (e.g., readiness, relief, recovery, and resilience). Rather than attempting to repair dilapidated, rental trailers, CBF was among numerous collaborators working towards a more resilient and sustainable solution related to Immokalee’s housing crisis.
On November 10, 2021, on the site where secure, affordable, hurricane-resistant rental housing will be constructed, the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance celebrated with a groundbreaking ceremony attended by a wide range of supporters and other stakeholders.
Once the units are finished, rental rates will be kept at least 30 percent or below of household income. In addition, early learning and afterschool activities will be provided for the children of farmworkers with educational and enrichment activities to be offered to resident adults. Community-wide health and wellness enhancements will also be offered.
Paying less rent will translate into more income being available for improved nutrition, education, and other household essentials.
As Global Missions representatives among the Immokalee farmworker community, we are proud of the witness and systemic approach that CBF takes towards honoring migrants, addressing poverty, improving resilience, and cultivating beloved community.