Who Gets to Stay at Red Cross Shelters?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The American Red Cross says it's turning away disaster cleanup laborers looking for shelter across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Housing is extremely tight across the storm-damaged region, and Red Cross officials say contractors have been taking advantage of the shelters by dropping off workers there. But say advocacy groups say the Red Cross should not be putting the laborers out on the street. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:
It's Friday evening at the Red Cross shelter in Diberville, Mississippi, and things are getting tense. An immigrant rights group is taking pictures and talking to workers out in the parking lot. The shelter manager has given the workers a deadline for 8 PM tonight: `Leave or be evicted.'
Mr. JOSH WILLIAMS (Diberville, Mississippi, Red Cross Manager): Just call--the Harrison County sheriff's on emergency and have them send me one sheriff over here on standby.
ARNOLD: Red Cross manager Josh Williams is at wit's end. He says a shelter for storm victims is being swamped with low-wage workers. Some are white, some are black and a lot of them are Hispanic immigrants who have come from all over the place to work for contractors hauling away debris and gutting damaged buildings. He says by the time Hurricane Rita hit, he knew he had a problem.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Our population here is supposed to be 150. We have between 170, 180 people in the building plus staff, and about 55 to 60 of them were workers.
ARNOLD: Williams says people donated money to the Red Cross to help disaster victims, not to house cheap labor, so he's been asking them to go.
Mr. WILLIAMS: We actually made the announcement on Tuesday. We were supposed to give them 48 hours.
ARNOLD: At a bank of telephones set up outside by the street, several immigrant workers are calling to try to find other places to go. Thirty-four-year-old Santos Vasquez(ph) has come here from New Jersey. He says a man lining up laborers for FEMA contractors promised him housing and $120 a day. But he says the contractor paid him $80 a day and set up a camp out in the woods where workers were sleeping with no bathroom.
Mr. SANTOS VASQUEZ (Contract Laborer): (Spanish spoken)
Ms. VICTORIA CINTRA (Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance): Oh.
ARNOLD: Victoria Cintra with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, or MIRA, translates.
Ms. CINTRA: `We were--you know, the tents were, like, in the center and all around the outskirts of the tents, it was all human waste. So there was a woman with us in the group and we all decided that we had to leave that place. We couldn't stay there.'
ARNOLD: Vasquez says he's also picked up some kind of fungus that burns and itches when he's working and that spread all over his stomach and down his legs.
Mr. VASQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)
Ms. CINTRA: He says, `I can't determine for sure where I picked it up, but I know that I picked it up working. You know, I'm picking up insulation and picking up dirt and the grotesque things.'
ARNOLD: Vasquez says he's grateful to the Red Cross for housing him and for giving him some pills and ointment, which he hopes will help. And as it turns out he'll get at least a few more nights here. The regional head of the Red Cross, Luis Garcia, arrived on the scene and managed to diffuse the situation. He has decided that no one will get evicted, but he says the Red Cross just can't house cleanup workers.
Mr. LUIS GARCIA (Regional Red Cross Head): There's a lot of individuals that are coming down with no jobs whatsoever from all over the country coming down here looking for work.
ARNOLD: On top of that, the shelter manager says many contractors are dropping off their workers here to sleep instead of paying to house them. The Red Cross' Garcia says he'll work with the local immigrant rights group to help relocate the workers staying here. He says FEMA has set up some tent parks for laborers doing FEMA-related work, and he's hoping church groups and other aid agencies can help. But Garcia says any more laborers who try to stay at Red Cross shelters in Mississippi will be turned away. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.
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