In 2000, Riverside County agreed to a settle a dispute with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development which was triggered after 24 Coachella Valley families filed complaints. According to HUD archives, the complaints stated “that Riverside County had targeted Hispanic-owned and -occupied mobile home parks for selective and discriminatory enforcement of its health and safety code and regulations.”
“The enforcement agreement is a major victory for a largely disenfranchised population, compensating victims of housing discrimination and resulting in a multi-million-dollar cooperative effort to build housing and provide needed services to farmworkers throughout the area for years to come,” said Ilene Jacobs, then the director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, which represented the farmworkers in the case. (The statement came from a HUD news release.)
Today—a decade and a half later—the county is still working on upholding its end of the settlement.
In December, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, by a vote of 4-0, approved an agreement with the Galilee Center—an organization that works to fill the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged—to construct and operate a facility in downtown Mecca that will provide permanent shower, restroom and laundry services for migrant farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley.
Such a facility was one of numerous mandated remedies to be undertaken by Riverside County as part of that 2000 HUD settlement.
“We call it Plaza Esperanza,” Galilee Center president and founder Gloria Gomez said recently. “It’s for the farmworkers, but anybody will able to use it, especially the people who are in the streets. … ‘Esperanza’ means ‘hope’ in English, because the people have been waiting so many years for these showers and laundry facilities.”
Riverside County District 4 Supervisor John Benoit said he has worked for years to find the right strategy to bring this facility to fruition.
“For some years, we have had a horrible facility that offered some of these comfort services, but it was quite a way outside of downtown Mecca,” Benoit said. “Then a few years ago, some people I know who have been involved in great nonprofit human health and services experiences in the valley decided to open up the Galilee Center in Mecca. … So I went to them and said, ‘This potentially could be a great cooperative effort where instead of spending the money to build a completely new facility and figure out how to manage it, we could work together.’
“I’m very pleased that notion has come to fruition and is nearly operational. They’re going to offer a lot of amenities that we could never have offered at just a simple shower and cleanliness facility. Certainly, it will be an asset to the community.”
Gomez elaborated on the Galilee Center’s plans.
“We’re going to have 12 showers for men and 12 showers for women,” she said. “The shower and laundry areas are being paid for by the Riverside County funds. We’re fundraising to build a large family community room where we’ll have televisions for the people and computer stations to help them search for jobs on the Internet. Also, we want to have classes to help give instruction to people who don’t know how to write their names.”
A December press release from Benoit’s office mentioned that $1.2 million in funds were designated for the comfort-station construction. Gomez said that won’t quite cover all costs.
“We’re bringing in extensions for the gas, water and sewer lines from Second Street,” Gomez said. “That’s pretty far away, so it’s expensive to bring those utilities to our site.”
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors has also agreed to provide $75,000 per year in operational funding for the new facility, which is slated to open May 18. Will that prove sufficient?
“We will be open November through March and again May through July,” said Gomez. “And during those months, our daily hours will be Monday through Friday from 1 to 7 p.m., while Saturdays and Sundays will be from noon to 6 p.m.
“During the other months, we will have the community room open and available. This first year of operations, we will find out exactly what the costs will be—especially during the hottest summer months, since the facility is going to be air-conditioned.”
Benoit praised all the work the Galilee Center has done and continues to do. “I think it’s great when you see the government able to work with these walking saints like Gloria Gomez and (Galilee Center CFO and co-founder) Claudia Castorena, because they’re trying to do the right thing for their community.”
Even after the HUD settlement and other initiatives over the past 15 years, the quality of life for our valley’s migrant-worker community needs improvement.
“There is an ongoing need for food. Right now, every Thursday, we have between 300 and 500 families who come to get food staples for the week,” Gomez said. “An even bigger need is health issues. Mental health is a big issue on this side of the valley. Our people need rental assistance and utility assistance. Some of the farmworkers work hard their entire lives to put food on our tables, but now they’re retired and receive no government assistance, because they’ve been undocumented. We encounter so many different problems and situations with this population. We can only do so much.”
If you’d like to contribute to the success of Plaza Esperanza—the Galilee Center is in special need of shampoo, soaps and towels (white towels are preferred because they’re easier to wash), as well as toothbrushes, toothpaste and small bottles of mouthwash—call the Galilee Center at 760-396-9100, or visit galileecenter.org.