Families evicted to provide housing for farm workers

OKEECHOBEE — When Cory Hunter and his wife Bethany awoke Wednesday, Aug. 10, it was just an ordinary day. He was going to work and she was preparing to take care of their year-old baby, Aria.

Bethany Hunter took a break Tuesday, Sept. 20, from cleaning the duplex she and her husband, Cory, had rented for the past year to spend a few moments with her daughter Aria, 1. Photo by Eric Kopp.

Bethany Hunter took a break Tuesday, Sept. 20, from cleaning the duplex she and her husband, Cory, had rented for the past year to spend a few moments with her daughter Aria, 1. Photo by Eric Kopp.

But, within a few hours their lives — and the lives of seven other families in the same complex — were turned upside down. This includes one family whose 7-year-old son is battling leukemia.

Mr. Hunter said he later found a notice taped to the front door of the duplex he was renting on U.S. 98 North that said, in essence: “It’s sold. You have a new owner,” said Mr. Hunter.

At that point, their lives — and those of the other families — came crumbling down around them.

Mr. Hunter said the new owner, Vernon Dixon, came to see the families on Aug. 14 and what he told his tenants left them devastated.

“He said he was moving Mexican pickers in on Sept. 26 and he wanted everyone out by Aug. 29,” said Mr. Hunter.

The eight units were initially owned by Venture Two Properties LLC. of Okeechobee and were managed by John Purvis. Records at the Okeechobee County Property Appraiser’s Office show the units were sold Aug. 11 for $375,000.

Department of State records show Justin Dixon is the registered agent for Dixon Harvesting and Hauling, Inc., in Fort Pierce.

In his memo to the families, Mr. Purvis identified the new owner as Justin Dixon — Vernon’s son.

Mr. Purvis also stated: “I believe the new owner may have other plans for the property but I also believe him to be an honest and honorable person who will treat you fairly.”

Try making those eight families who are scrambling to find a place to live believe that statement.

“There are no places for anybody to go. This is crap!” said a visibly upset Crystal Baumhardt, a single mother with six children. “This (Okeechobee) is my home, but I can’t find a place to rent here. How can this be right?”

She went on to say she’s basically giving up and moving out of state in October. She has been guaranteed a job and a home in Dodge City, Kansas.

“I’ll drive a truck locally,” she said. “And, I’ll be home every night.”

But other families, including the Hunters, are having a tougher time of finding somewhere to live. Especially, something they can afford.

“So far, I’ve found two rental units — one for $1,100 a month and the other is in Lorida,” said Mr. Hunter.

The units were renting for $500 to $650 a month. Some are two bedroom units while others have three bedrooms. All have one bathroom.

He and his family have since found temporary housing. The key word there is temporary.

“Most of us are leaning on our families for help,” he said.

When contacted Monday, Sept. 19, Vernon Dixon confirmed the purchase of the eight duplexes.

“I purchased it for a purpose,” said Mr. Dixon, in a phone interview from his Fort Pierce office. “We want the use of the property. We told them to find a place and we gave them up to $800 to move. We gave another $850.”

The workers are coming in to work under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Act. H-2A classifications can be extended for qualifying employment in increments of up to 1 year each. The maximum period of time a worker can stay in the U.S. under this program is three years.

The working period can also be as short as a month.

Under this act employers are required to provide free housing to the workers, as well as their meals and inbound and outbound transportation.

The rate of pay must be as high as the federal or state minimum wage or the applicable prevailing hourly wage rate — whichever is higher.

While Amanda McLin was one of the renters evicted from her duplex on U.S. 98 North, she was more fortunate than others in that she found another home to rent in Basswood. She had lived in the duplex for five years. She was trying to hurry and get her possessions to her new home Tuesday before the rain started to fall.

While Amanda McLin was one of the renters evicted from her duplex on U.S. 98 North, she was more fortunate than others in that she found another home to rent in Basswood. She had lived in the duplex for five years. She was trying to hurry and get her possessions to her new home Tuesday before the rain started to fall.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’s description of this act, the employer must: Offer a job that is temporary or seasonal; show there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing and qualified to do the work; and, show employing H-2A workers won’t impact the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.

When asked if these workers will be working in his groves, Mr. Dixon replied that he does not own any groves. However, he did confirm that they would be working in citrus.

Of the tenants being displaced, he said they were told they didn’t have to pay any rent for the month of September, since everyone was paid up.

While the Hunters did get their deposit back, along with some extra cash, that was not the case for Mark and Rachel Hamby or their neighbor Amanda Sewell.

Although they’ve tried as of Friday, Sept. 23, their deposits had not been returned. And, to top it off, Justin Dixon served them with a notice stating they are now behind in their rent.

“We’ve been looking every day,” said Mrs. Hamby, of trying to find a new home. “We’ve even gone to Martin County. But, we have to stay in the area because of Mark’s job, he’s an electrician in Indiantown, and because of Gage.”

Gage has been fighting leukemia since the age of 4 and must travel to West Palm Beach to receive his treatments at St. Mary’s Hospital. Because of his illness, Mrs. Hamby stays at home with him, making her husband the sole breadwinner.

A little Yorkie-mix dog is also causing the family a problem in finding a new home. The Hamby’s purchased the small dog for Gage.

“The dog helps with his therapy, and can tell the family when Gage is not doing well,” explained Mrs. Hamby. “When my son is sick he will lay on my son and tell us he’s sick. The dog has really helped with my son’s treatment.”

At this point the anger in her starts to well up when she thinks about having to uproot Gage and his four brothers and sisters.

“Basically, we’re getting screwed,” she said. “Putting all of this on us this suddenly makes it very difficult. We understand we have to leave — we’re not fighting that. No one has anything available and we can’t afford to buy anything.

“All of these families are like that,” she added.

She then stated proudly that she and her family don’t receive any assistance from the government and are not on food stamps. Gage, however, is covered by Medicaid. He has to be. She said just his medicines alone total over $1,200 a month.

And as much as Mrs. Hamby tried to control her anger, for Ms. Sewell there was no trying to hold back. Her anger was quite evident.

“Everybody here lives paycheck to paycheck. How do your expect eight families to jump up and find a place?” she asked. “It just irks me!”

Ms. Sewell has lived in the same unit, without a lease, for nearly six years.

She’s also an unmarried mom of a 1-year-old boy and a 6-year-old daughter.

And, like Mrs. Hamby, she has to stay home due to her son’s health issues.

Her anger over the situation has grown because she actually found a single-wide mobile home for rent. The landlord told her she and her family could move in for $600 — which, she didn’t have.

But, she told the new landlord she had $100 and would get her $500 deposit back from the Dixons. The new landlord said that would be OK.

But, it didn’t work out for her.

She contacted Vernon Dixon and asked him to return her deposit so she could move out. But, she said, he refused to give it to her.

“He didn’t give me the money because, he said, he didn’t trust me!” she said angrily.

Because of that, she lost the chance to rent the mobile home.

“He (Vernon Dixon) has said all these things, but he’s doing something else. I understand I have to leave. I was in motion and getting things figured out. We were just trying to find anything to just get out of here,” said Ms. Sewell.

“He looked me in the face and said he didn’t trust me. I was irate,” she growled.

To add insult to injury, she said an Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office deputy served her with a five-day notice on Friday, Sept. 9, that said she owed $650 for non-payment of her rent.

“He (Vernon Dixon) said we didn’t have to pay rent, then I got this notice,” said Ms. Sewell, who was now fuming.

She wrote a letter of dispute and filed it with the court on Sept. 14, and sent a certified copy to Vernon Dixon so he would have to sign for it.

But, she’s still waiting to hear from the court.

“I’ve not heard anything — as far as the next step,” she offered.

While each family has a different story, they are still similar. They have either been forced out or are being forced out with no place to go and trying their best to figure out their next move.

“I’ve done everything I can do,” sighed Ms. Sewell. “I know he did us wrong. But, in the end, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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