Just days after a shooter opened fire on two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay, fellow farmworker Ricardo Moreno was already back on the job.
A recent immigrant from Mexico, Moreno is employed at Pescardero Terra Garden, a sister location of one of the farms where the shootings occurred. Though he personally knew many of the victims and their families, his own workplace was spared.
Like many in his community, Moreno was trying not to dwell on the tragedy. Despite the sadness he felt for those impacted, he said it was important to "keep going forward," adding, "We have to continue working to survive."
Still, he knew that wasn't possible for his fellow farmworkers, just 25 minutes down the road, who saw their residences and workplaces turn into active crime scenes.
Since Monday, Jan. 23, roughly 40 residents of California Terra Garden (formerly Mountain Mushroom Farm) and Concord Farms, where the shootings occurred, have been staying in nearby hotels, with no estimate of when they can return.
"They left with what they were wearing — heavy working boots, no cellphone chargers," said Enrique "Kique" Bazán, a board member of ALAS, a nonprofit focused on the coastal Latino community.
In the days since, service providers and volunteers continue to supply everything from hot food to phone chargers to school carpools for the 18 displaced families, while officials from San Mateo County and the city of Half Moon Bay scramble to find a longer-term housing solution for the affected families. According to County Executive Mike Callagy, the residential units at California Terra Garden, where the first shooting took place, are "substandard and not really livable."
"No one's going to go back there," Supervisor Ray Mueller told this news organization. But the question remains: Where will the farmworkers go next? Now a week after the shooting, the families are eager to get out of the hotels and back into stable housing. But with jurisdictional challenges and a dearth of affordable housing, officials are struggling to find enough units.
"We're really asking Half Moon Bay residents to open up their arms and doors for these residents," Callagy said. "We're desperately trying to find housing for them."
'Living in squalor'
In the wake of last week's shootings, all eyes are now on the largely immigrant, low-income farm working community, which has long been the agricultural backbone of Half Moon Bay and the wider Peninsula.
As Half Moon Bay Vice Mayor Joaquin Jimenez said during a Jan. 24 press conference , farmworkers are generally ignored — until they're not.
"You come to our community for the pumpkins and ignore the farmworkers," he said, looking solemnly at the crowd gathered outside the I.D.E.S. Hall in downtown Half Moon Bay. "Not today — we're not ignoring anybody."
Citing poor living conditions, inadequate pay and nonexistent health care, officials, including Gov, Gavin Newsom, have come out to demand change.
"No one should be living there," Mueller said, describing RVs and single-room trailers at California Terra Garden that looked like "converted storage containers" and lacked basic amenities. Mueller said he'd heard reports about the living conditions on farms but was unaware of the extent until last week. He shared a series of tweets and photos showing corrugated steel trailers and outdoor kitchens — which he referred to as "deplorable, heartbreaking living conditions."
Newsom also publicly decried the conditions experienced by farmworkers in Half Moon Bay and throughout the state.
"No health care, no support, no services, but taking care of our health — providing a service to each and every one of us every single day," Newsom said during the Jan. 24 press conference.
However, documenting and addressing poor living conditions among the county's agricultural workforce is a daunting, complicated task for several reasons.
Because these farms are privately owned, the county can't conduct unsolicited inspections and instead relies on a complaint-based system to learn of possible code violations.
Callagy said that the county takes action on a case-by-case basis when it's made aware of problems. Describing some instances of farmworkers as "living in squalor," he said the recent tragedy had "brought to light" longstanding issues that were even more egregious than he'd expected and not up to county code.
"Some places didn't have proper ingress or egress, (running) water, heat," Callagy said. Other residences lacked a safe foundation and "were just teetering on bricks," he added. "If there were an earthquake, they would just fall off."
Asked about photos Mueller shared of small, poorly equipped trailers on the California Terra Garden where the first shooting took place, Jimenez seemed unsurprised.
David Oates, a spokesperson for California Terra Farm, however, disputed claims that the farm's residences had long been subpar, clarifying that the photos Mueller shared were not of the living conditions per se, but of the "storage units adjacent to the living quarters."
He said that conditions had deteriorated since law enforcement's "very thorough investigation" of the property following the mass shooting and named broken door locks and damaged walls as some of the recent disrepair. But he insisted that every trailer is "state-inspected" and equipped with running water, electricity and a kitchen. The damage to the facilities was not there before authorities came to investigate, he said.
But Judith Guerrero, executive director of Coastside Hope, a nonprofit that provides safety net services to coastal communities, said she showed the first two photos to a California Terra Garden resident who said that, while the outdoor spaces with a mattress and cooking area weren't the workers' sleeping quarters, it was still "part of the living area." Guerrero said she'd also been told that some trailers lacked functional stoves and hot water, while others lacked running water altogether.
Regardless, she said, the photos spoke for themselves.
"Would you live there? If I had a choice, I wouldn't," she said.
Relocating the residents, officials and housing advocates agree, is not that simple.
For starters, the roughly 10 trailers and RVs are technically within the Half Moon Bay city limits and therefore outside of county jurisdiction.
According to Callagy, the county is collaborating with the city of Half Moon Bay to find intermediate housing for the families while they seek a more permanent solution. While the county has a few locations so far, Callagy said, securing long-term housing for everyone from single occupants to six-person families has proved to be a challenge.
"We're trying to find 18 houses for people who became homeless overnight," Callagy said. "So it's quite a task — in a small community with a tight market in one of the most expensive counties in the county."
The displaced workers' housing costs are being covered by the county, which is also providing financial assistance to replace lost wages. While the families will be able to stay at hotels through Friday, for both logistical and personal reasons, their time there is limited.
"Living in a hotel is not a viable option," Guerrero said. Guerrero, whose mother is also a farmworker, has been to the hotels every day checking on families and delivering supplies. Without kitchens or access to personal belongings, daily life has been completely disrupted.
Still, many aren't eager to return to their former residence, now one of the sites of the worst mass shooting in San Mateo County history.
"There are a lot of them that say they're anxious, that they wouldn't feel safe going back there, that they aren't ready," Guerrero said.
Oates said the company "isn't comfortable" bringing the families or employees back to the farm in its current state and intends to work with officials to find a temporary solution.
"We're working hard today to evaluate all options for a temporary solution to extend their stay off company property," he said.
California Terra Farm announced Monday that it would be building new permanent structures on the farm property to house its employees and their families.
The decision, according to the statement, came "after collaborative discussions with local officials that uncovered a series of code and permitting requirements unknown before the tragic shootings that occurred last week."
The company said development will take roughly one year and that it will provide affordable housing and "above-market wages and benefits to all its team members" in the interim.
A symptom of a crisis
Jimenez, for his part, said he's long been aware of the poor residential conditions common throughout the coastal farms. But one of the challenges is that, for many workers, small living quarters with meager amenities are preferable to the alternative — no housing at all.
"We try to do the right thing by red-tagging the farms, but then we have families that go homeless," he said. "Farmworkers have shared with me personally, 'If you don't have a place for us to go, with a roof and walls, then don't bring it up.'"
Jimenez declined to point fingers at the farm owners or county officials for poor worker living conditions, which he described as a symptom of the larger Bay Area housing crisis.
In Half Moon Bay, a studio can cost upwards $2,500 per month. With salaries that often hover at or barely exceed the California minimum wage of $15.50 per hour, many families simply can't afford the price — let alone a deposit and first and last month's rent. California Terra Farms pays $16.50-$24 per hour, according to Oates.
"To me and you, the pictures that Mueller tweeted are unacceptable, they're deplorable," Guerrero said. But a lot of the workers, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico, China and throughout Central America, are the sole breadwinners for their families in the United States or back home.
As a result, low-income workers, like those living at the coastal mushroom farms, might be willing to tolerate less-than-ideal living conditions for the much more affordable $300 monthly rate offered by their employers.
Ultimately, Guerrero said, it's a question of: "How dedicated are you to provide for your family?"
According to results from a 2019 Health Needs Assessment, the county is short a roughly 1,020-1,140 affordable units for the agricultural workforce. As of 2019, the total population of farmworkers and their dependents was estimated to be between 2,990 and 3,680.
The survey found that farmworkers living on-site are "less likely to experience excessive housing cost burdens." However, the study noted, affordability comes at the cost of more overcrowding, housing problems and disrepair.
Callagy acknowledged that issues in the agricultural sector represented a piece of a larger puzzle — the widespread lack of affordable housing along the Peninsula. He said the county intended to survey other farms to better understand the extent of the problem and agreed that red-tagging or fining farmworker residences wouldn't solve the problem.
The long-term goal, he said, was to work with the farm owners like those at California Terra Garden to develop "safe, habitable, healthy residential units" for the live-in workers. But, he noted, that's "not a quick fix."
He said that the construction of farmworker apartment complexes, like Moonridge on the coast, and the county's new Navigation Center, represented efforts to provide more affordable options for low-income residents. The county will be looking to expedite permits to build more farmworker housing in the near-term, he said, adding that the bigger challenges were understanding the extent of the problem and building enough housing to combat it.
The question, he said, is: "Where? On which land? And how do we get it through without waiting five, six, seven, eight years?"
A massive community effort
When news of the shootings reached Stacey Jennings and her husband, RJ, their first thought was to reach out to the local nonprofits to see how they could help.
The Jenningses, who are involved in groups like Coastside Families Taking Action and Fixin' San Mateo County, know who to go to when neighbors are in need. They made their way to Purissima Street and the main office for ALAS, a nonprofit that RJ described as a critical connection to the Latino community.
"This was one of our first stops — to check in here at the tent and see how we could be of service," he said.
There the couple heard about the farmworkers who'd been evacuated from their homes and workplaces. While his wife went to Costco to buy food and toys, RJ began to mobilize a network of volunteers.
Since then, community members — hand-in-hand with local nonprofits — have been working tirelessly to meet the every need of the displaced farm working families.
For members of ALAS, who are intimately involved with the agricultural community and regularly provide critical resources like groceries and health care to the sites where the shootings happened, the tragedy struck close to home.
"An hour before (the shooting), we had team workers there bringing clothes, food," Bazán, a board member, said. Not only did the ALAS staff know all of the victims, who include five men and two women, but they knew the suspected gunman as well.
"People are really shocked because they recognized the shooter. They have served him, given him clothing, food," he said. Bazán, who was feeling "shaky" less than a day after the shooting, said that one ALAS employee lost her uncle. "It's tearing their hearts apart," he said.
Lizette Diaz, a member of Coastside Families Taking Action who personally knew three of the victims, described Monday and Tuesday of last week as a whirlwind.
"I've never moved so quickly in my life," she said in between unpacking boxes of applesauce on Jan. 24. "I literally took 17 carloads of donations yesterday."
Though the immediate response has been huge, some worry about what the coming weeks and months will bring.
Pat Carbullido, operations director at ALAS, said his and other organizations will continue supporting the workers with everything from mental health resources to financial assistance. But, he wondered, would the county follow through with its promises to funnel more resources into the farm working community? Would there still be pressure from the local and wider community to prioritize new, affordable housing developments and improving farm worker living conditions?
"Once everything settles down and the press and government officials leave, that's the big question," he said. "February — what does that look like for them?"
on Jan 31, 2023 at 5:34 pm
on Jan 31, 2023 at 5:34 pm
Some RV's have more square footage than the average proposed new apartments in Palo Alto. The state, instead of rewarding "middle class" residents with money giveaways, could buy 18 large RV's for immediate relief. They would be needing connection to sewer and power. Dig it, and line it up. Then build an apartment complex within walking distance of their place of work. Kind of like Palo Alto is suggesting for its well-to-do residents. What am I missing here? We can't quickly help San Mateo learn how to house 18 families? Our City Council should be at their beck and call, ready to give them the same advice they give to us here. Yo, City Manager -- do you need the phone number for the Half Moon Bay City Manager? It's (650) 726-8280.