MENDOTA, Calif. — Martin Hernandez had an apartment in this western Fresno County city for a dozen years until the drought dried up steady work in the fields and he couldn’t pay the rent.
For the past year, Hernandez has lived in an encampment of shacks along a dry ditch just north of the city.
“It’s hardest in the winter, when it’s cold,” he says of staying in his hut-like home.
Hernandez, a tree pruner, is one of the newer inhabitants of the homeless camp, which sprang up about seven years ago. In the early days, about a dozen or so people set up residence. In the past two years, the number has mushroomed to 50 – by one estimate – and the camp has taken on the appearance of a shanty town, with people entrenched within its plywood walls.
Hernandez has helped build or repair several of the structures that stretch like a rundown motel row for about the length of a half-block. The tarp-covered roofs of the shanties jut out of the dirt to catch the eye of drivers on Highway 33, the road between Mendota and Firebaugh.
The shacks have caught the attention of government officials, too. A year ago, the Fresno County public works department, citing building code and other safety violations, ordered Westlands Water District to dismantle the camp, which is on the district’s property.
There is no potable water. Most of the people ride bicycles into Mendota to buy bottled water. If they have family nearby, they catch an occasional shower. And some risk bathing in a nearby irrigation canal.
“There is nothing safe about that situation out there,” says Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager for external affairs at Westlands. The conditions are like those seen in developing countries, not in the United States, he says.
Amaral says there is little question laid-off farmworkers from drought-fallow farms have driven up the homeless population of the camp. “I’m willing to bet there is a direct correlation between the water supply shortages and what is happening out there. I’ve never seen a situation quite like that.”
No hard numbers are available for how many Californians have been made homeless by the drought, especially not how many farmworkers have lost homes and apartments because of layoffs or reduced work hours.
However, a one-time, $9 billion Drought Housing Rental Subsidy Program through the state Department of Housing and Community Development gives a glimpse of the need. The program provided assistance to more than 4,000 farmworkers in 2014.
The camp outside Mendota keeps growing. “A little community is being formed there,” Amaral says.
Westlands has been working to comply with the county order to empty the camp, he says. “We have initiated all the processes and steps to do what it is we’re going to have to do in a lawful and legal manner.”
The process would be going faster, Amaral says, but “we’re trying to do the right thing with a heart.”
Shanty Town Life
The homeless typically congregate in urban camps like those the city of Fresno has combatted for years – not outside small farm towns.
Most of the homeless in the Mendota camp are men. The able-bodied young scatter on mornings looking for work, locking their shanties with padlocks and chains before they go.
By 9 a.m. on a recent morning, older men and a few women are left behind. There are no children.
Along the row of shacks, the accoutrements of vagabond lives have accumulated: rotting couches and mattresses, shopping carts and dismembered bicycles.
Attempts to make their shelters feel like homes also can be found: a wood-fired grill for cooking, a paned-window, a small garden plot.
Images of the Virgin Mary abound, with a painted wooden sign hanging on one wall, asking for her protection, “Protegenos de toda adversidad Madrecita.”
Mendota Mayor Robert Silva says some of the homeless don’t want to leave.
Mendota is limited in what it can do to empty the camp because it’s in unincorporated Fresno County, outside city limits. Churches and agencies offer services to the homeless, but camp inhabitants don’t accept them, Silva says. “They want to live that way.”
Lupe Baeza is one of the few women, and she says she feels bad about squatting on Westlands land. “I just want to apologize for all of us being here.”
She came to be homeless when she got kicked out of her home in Mendota. She has been at the camp “too long,” she says.
Her shanty, built by Martin Hernandez, has a lived-in look.
Inside, carpet has been laid on the floor. She has a bed with a mirrored headboard held up by a jar of peanut butter; an old chair; a makeshift closet behind a curtain; a dart board; a round clock.
On the roof, a solar panel (installed by a boyfriend) powers batteries stored in the corner of the room. Camp friend Maricela Hidalgo uses the battery power to charge a cellphone. Baeza says she used to watch TV on battery power, but the television was stolen.
Baeza says people at the camp help one another, but she and others want to move out. It’s hard to miss the For Sale sign tacked above the outside entry to her improvised house.
“A lot of people don’t want to live here for long,” she says. “They want to move on.”
Surviving in a homeless camp is not easy, especially for women, Hidalgo says.
She almost has been raped three times since moving into the camp two years ago, she says. “I’m tired of being here.”
Hidalgo, 49, had been living with her mother, but when her mother died, she lost her home. “I didn’t have a place to go.”
She has looked for work, but she hurt her back in a fall three years ago and she has trouble walking and standing.
If the camp is dismantled, Hidalgo doesn’t know where she and others will go, but she says it could be to empty, boarded-up houses in Mendota.
Distrust, Even of Those Offering Help
Unease about a potential eviction makes camp occupants scatter when unfamiliar cars bump along the dirt road and park beside the irrigation canal that runs full.
A Clinica Sierra Vista mobile medical van, which parks near the camp, could not calm nerves on a recent chilly morning.
“They’re not coming out because they’re scared. They’ve been told they have to leave,” says Maria Hernandez, a Good Samaritan who serves chili beans to people who grab the steaming bowls and retreat inside their dwellings.
Martin Hernandez, however, takes the chance to venture outside to let the nurses from Fresno look at his right hand.
About 10 days ago, he hurt himself installing a floor in a shack. His hand is swollen and oozing blood through a soiled bandage.
The wound is infected, says Rosa Gordus, a public health nurse with Clinica.
Gordus treats the wound, but she and nurse practitioner Colleen Black confer and agree that Hernandez should go to the hospital where he can be given intravenous antibiotics and an X-ray can be taken to see if the infection has spread into the bones of his hand.
Hernandez is eligible for Medi-Cal, the state-federal insurance for the poor, but he refuses to go to the hospital. “He just says he doesn’t like to go,” says Gladys Gonzalez, a Clinica outreach worker who interprets for Hernandez, who speaks Spanish.
Clinica staff drive to Mendota Drug to fill a prescription for antibiotic pills that they hope will stop the infection in his hand.
Ruben Chavez, chief administrative officer for Clinica in Fresno, says nurses will be back in a few days to check on Hernandez. He expects more patients will be seen on their return. “It’s trust,” he says. “We have to build trust with them.”
Clinica likely will have time to gain that trust.
Amaral says there is no eviction date for the camp. And he can’t estimate one.
“This involves giving people time and respecting their rights under the law.”
For more coverage of the California drought and water issues, please visit The Fresno Bee. Top image: Lupe Baeza sits in her shack, part of the homeless camp outside Mendota. Baeza is one of the few women in the camp, and she says she feels badly about squatting on Westlands Water District land. “I just want to apologize for all of us being here.” (John Walker, The Fresno Bee)