California’s Hidden Third World Slums

March 27th, 2007

Via: Los Angeles Times:

Like most of their neighbors in the sprawling, ramshackle Oasis Mobile Home Park, the Aguilars have no heat, no hot water. On cold nights, the family of eight stays warm by bundling up in layers of sweaters and sleeps packed together in two tiny rooms.

Bathing is a luxury that requires using valuable propane to boil gallons of water. So the farmworker clan spends a lot of time dirty.

Jose Aguilar, a wiry 9-year-old, has found a way around the bath problem. He just waits until dinner. “My mom makes frijoles,” he said, “then I take a bath in that water.”

Jose and his family live in a world few ever see, a vast poverty born in hundreds of trailer parks strung like a shabby necklace across the eastern Coachella Valley.

Out here — just a few miles from world-class golf resorts, private hunting clubs and polo fields — half-naked children toddle barefoot through mud and filth while packs of feral dogs prowl piles of garbage nearby.

Thick smoke from mountains of burning trash drifts through broken windows. People — sometimes 30 or more — are crammed into trailers with no heat, no air-conditioning, undrinkable water, flickering power and plumbing that breaks down for weeks or months at a time.

“I was speechless,” said Haider Quintero, a Colombian training for the priesthood who recently visited the parks as part of his studies. “I never expected to see this in America.”

Riverside County officials say there are between 100 and 200 illegal trailer parks in the valley, but the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition says the number could be as high as 500.

California Rural Legal Assistance says as few as 20 parks are legal, and they are often as dilapidated as the illegal ones. When county inspectors locate a park without permits, they prefer to let owners bring the place into compliance through loan and grant programs rather than evict the tenants.

Some of the largest and poorest parks are on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation where they are not subject to local zoning laws and the county can’t monitor safety, hygiene and building standards. The reservation is also home to the worst illegal dumps of any tribe in California, Arizona or Nevada, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency has closed 10 of the 20 most toxic dumps and cited four of the largest trailer parks for health violations.

Despite the conditions, park owners say they are providing a vital service in an area where housing prices have soared.

“Before the parks, they were living in their cars, in the desert and bathing in the canals. Five guys would pay 50 bucks a month to share a camper shell,” said Scott Lawson, a tribal member and co-owner of the Oasis park on the reservation. “Nobody cared when they lived like that, only when they moved into trailers. You can’t expect the poorest to live like the wealthiest. They feel comfortable here; it’s like being back in Mexico. They tell me that.”

Lawson’s 300-trailer park has been cited by the EPA for clean-water violations and was recently ordered to stop pumping raw sewage into the nearby Salton Sea.

“We had some citations about water but it’s because we didn’t know how to test it,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of my place. There are a lot worse places than mine.”

Exactly how many people live in the trailer parks is unknown, but social workers estimate tens of thousands. The biggest park, Desert Mobile Home Park, or “Duroville,” has more than 4,000 residents and can be seen off California 195 near Thermal. Others are on private property and virtually invisible to passing motorists.

The tenants are almost entirely Latino farm or construction workers. Many are in the United States legally, but plenty are not. Their average income, according to county officials, is about $10,000 a year. Many parents rent out their children’s rooms for extra money, leaving kids to sleep on floors or in sheds. Many families keep warm by burning grape stakes, which fill their trailers with toxic fumes.

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5 Responses to “California’s Hidden Third World Slums”

  1. fallout11 Says:

    I hate to say this, but the sad picture painted here is increasingly common in many rural areas, and increasingly suburban areas of the US.

    The steadily increasing disparity of wealth (10% vs 90%) in the US, corruption of public policy by the ruling class, rampant inflation, steady stream of immigrant labor, and deepening, grinding poverty has begun creating US versions of “favelas”, the massive, insular, and lawless shanty towns found in corrupt and heavily stratified third world countries (favelas is a Brazilian term, but they can be found around the world, from the Phillipines to Vietnam, from Mexico to Togo).

    Blighted and decaying urban ghettos have always fallen into this category in their own way, but increasingly large swaths of the US now resemble third world countries. Out of sight and out of mind for most, they represent the future for many here in the US kleptocracy. Those Americans losing their homes today, their jobs tomorrow, and already in deep financial debt will soon be joining these folks.

  2. General Patton Says:

    Economics went all wrong when it tried to classify economies based entirely at the national level. Cities make a better unit:

  3. hermes10 Says:

    This is nothing new to me. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, along the border in South Texas. Nearly thirty years ago unscrupulous developers, facilitated with a blind eye from county and state authorities (or bribes), were creating “colonias” –“subdivisions” with no paved streets, sewers, running water, or electricity. They sold “lots” in these “subdivisions” to poor Hispanics, pocketed the money, and left the taxpayers to clean up the mess. But then I guess term “uncscrupulous developer” is sort of redundant.

  4. Clay Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I grew up in El Paso, TX and for the last eight months have been living in Brownsville, TX. My wife and I moved here from the Twin Cities, MN because of the low cost of living and near year round growing season. The conditions I read about in the above article sounded appalling, but when I looked at the photos and video I said “hey, that’s not so bad.” Brownsville has 1/3 of its residents living below the poverty line, and I can walk around the corner from my house and see conditions as bad or worse than these. Truth is most US citizens don’t see this type of thing (even though it may be within a few miles of where they live) because they don’t want to.

    One thing that’s rampant here in the Rio Grande Valley are “Why Rent? Own your own home for only $600 per month!” types of billboards and newspaper ads. Usually in Spanish, they NEVER discuss loan terms or even the price of the house. Like many places in the US there is a building glut going on here, and many homes have been for sale since I moved here. Some developments are only a few years old and already resemble slums, with accompanying trash, decay, and abandoned properties, some not even finished. Farming has been a staple here for decades and there are “for sale” signs all up and down the area farms. Downtown Brownsville is almost nothing except “Everything’s a Dollar” stores, and empty fronts. Older shopping plazas are mostly vacant.

    Meanwhile the traffic is astounding and there are new highways and malls going up like crazy. It makes no sense whatsoever.

  5. sharon Says:

    I’m with Clay, who has seen as bad–or worse–right in their own back yard. This is what life is like in most trailer parks in the US, and has been for a long time.

    When my kids were little, they would sometimes go on “sleep overs” at friends’ trailers, which were sometimes at the edges of affluent suburbs. The trailers were old, shabby, and drafty, often very dirty, and my kids often came home with head lice.

    Later, I bought a house in a rural lake community–a rather distressed lake community, with many single-wide trailers, no trash service (unless you paid for it), no water service (water is still hauled in to fill cisterns), no public sewers (everyone is on a septic tank). Some people were even living in camper trailers, where their toilet facilities were the woods, and their water supply was a 50-gallon drum in the front yard.

    Many of the people living in the trailers had (and still have) problems with the decaying water and sewage infrastructure. The cost of repairs on this stuff can be monumental.

    One of the families that lived near me remained in their trailer while the septic system slowly disintegrated. They were unable to flush the toilet or run water without creating a smelly marsh right next to the trailer. The hot water heater didn’t work, the refrigerator didn’t work. The stove worked well enough to heat two rooms during the winter. The whole place smelled to high heaven. Like many people in the area, they burned their trash on the ground. (Some other people burned their trash in a “burn barrel”–an old rural tradition. Some people buried the stuff that wouldn’t burn. Other people shovelled it up periodically, and hauled it off.)

    The family living near me finally fled the area, after the DFS was called in. The evening after the social worker’s visit–and after refusing to let the social worker enter the premises–they took the kids and stayed away (hanging out at Wal-Mart), and then returned late at night to pack. They were afraid that, when DFS returned, their kids would end up in foster care.

    I’ve known other families who were constantly without water or heat or electricity.

    The trailer parks in urban and suburban areas are just a notch better–where people can afford to keep their utilities turned on.

    The stuff described in the article is everywhere in the US–which may already be a third-world country.

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