People like “Abel,” Juan Iglesias and María Louisa Daniels could care less that a rally led by politicians asking for Gov. Jerry Brown to call a special session to deal with the water shortage for farmers was taking place a few miles from their homeless encampment.
The Oct. 2 ‘Take Back Our Water’ rally was led by Assemblymembers Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, and Mendota Mayor Robert Silva.
A few miles north of Mendota, about 50 people have constructed a makeshift village inside a dried-out ditch about 12 feet wide.
The encampment, where some residents have planted gardens for decoration and hung religious icons on the outside of some of the plywood shacks, contains at least 20 small wooden structures situated in the canal nearly a football field in length. The encampment can be seen from Highway 33, the stretch of roadway between Mendota and Firebaugh.
“Abel” chose not to give his last name. He was giving away cases of bottled water, saying “A Caucasian man in a white truck left them at the entrance of the dirt road.”
Many of the shacks have support posts dug into the ground; some rooftops have plastic overhead with old bicycle tires sitting above to secure it from blowing away. Nearby is the irrigation canal, where some of the residents bathe and wash clothing. Along the embankment is a pan and utensils on a broken shopping cart. There is also a red-and-white sign that states the property is owned by the Westlands Water District.
There’s about nine, 10 people without work living here because there is no water. And they’re people who are hard workers, you know, but it’s just that right now, work is really slow.
Homeless encampment resident “Abel” about the 50-or-more people living in shacks outside Mendota
Abel sat near the entrance of a shack where Iglesias was preparing a meal: Mexican rice and meat and tomatoes stewed in separate skillets over a burning, wood fire grill, which they also use to keep warm.
“There’s about nine, 10 people without work living here because there is no water. And they’re people who are hard workers, you know, but it’s just that right now, work is really slow,” said Abel in Spanish and wearing a dusty sport jersey.
Abel has lived in the encampment for five years. He said the day before this Oct. 2 visit, his disability checks had ended.
He said he’s skilled in farm labor machinery and has tried to find work with one of the several field contractors who regularly visit the encampment to pick up workers, but he is often rejected once they find out he receives disability checks.
I’ve talked to some of those people, and some of those people are former druggies or are druggies right now. And they don’t want to come in to town. They want to be left alone. We tried, and we know they’re getting food. So we’ve done what we could. If they were in our city, we’d do a lot more, but we can’t.
Mendota mayor Robert Silva on the homeless encampment that sprung up just over five years ago outside his city’s limits
“The contractors come every morning, the people already know them,” he said, “and they come and pick them up over there (near the irrigation canal). About 16 leave with the mayordomos.”
There are women living in the encampment, but the majority of the workers leaving each morning in the trucks and vans are men. According to Abel, the older men are usually not chosen for the work.
Without any running water in the encampment, Abel said they resort to buying bottled water in Mendota.
“For five gallons, it comes out about $1.50, $2, but if you buy a gallon, it could cost more like $2.50,” he said.
María Louisa Daniels comes from Sonora, México. She first arrived to the United States in 1992 and settled in Firebaugh.
Daniels said she kept her rental in Firebaugh neat and clean, but that it was demolished anyway and the cause for her current situation.
She’s been living in the encampment since February or March.
I keep my place clean right here, but some of the other places, they’re all dirty. They do a lot of things right in the places, and then they use the canal for everything.”
María Louisa Daniels about living in the homeless encampment between Mendota and Firebaugh
“I work in Mendota, but not a lot. There’s a lot of people here, and they’re trying to get us out, but there’s alcoholics right here, the people with drugs over there,” said Daniels, who admitted she drinks alcohol.
As Daniels opened the door of her shack, which like many other shacks, is secured with a heavy chain and locked with a Master lock, you can see the dirt floor, what appeared to be a bed and a couple of bikes. The bikes are crucial for transportation to nearby Mendota.
“These are my dogs. This one is pregnant,” she said pointing to the scruffy pregnant poodle and nearby is a light-brown terrier.
“I keep my place clean right here, but some of the other places, they’re all dirty. They do a lot of things right in the places, and then they use the canal for everything.”
Earlier in the day, the dignitaries and politicians in the rally pounded down the need for more water. They called for construction of water storage facilities, stressing the importance of water issues over the spending of the High Speed Rail.
Fresno City Councilmember Clint Olivier said he visited the encampment and spoke to a female named María before his arrival to the rally.
“She doesn’t make enough money to live, so she lives in a cardboard shack. She also knits, but knitting little napkins and working two hours a day doesn’t pay the bills. I asked her ‘Why are you here, why is this happening?’ and she said, ‘Sin agua, no hay trabajo. Sin agua, no hay vida.’ Folks, these are our neighbors,” Olivier shouted at the rally.
“Remember that encampment is not in the city limits. We have been working with the food banks and different charities to help them,” said Silva, the mayor.
Silva said churches and water agencies have helped residents in the encampment.
“But you know what? I’ve talked to some of those people, and some of those people are former druggies or are druggies right now. And they don’t want to come in to town. They want to be left alone. We tried, and we know they’re getting food. So we’ve done what we could. If they were in our city, we’d do a lot more, but we can’t,” said Silva.
Silva added his involvement in numerous organizations dealing with water issues dates back to the 1990s, saying there has been some changes, but more work is needed.
He admits the current approximate 20 percent unemployment in Mendota, which has just over 11,000 in population, is an improvement.
“It’s not great, it’s not wonderful, but at least it’s something better than it was before, when we were at about 44 percent,” he said.