Enough to Make You Sick

The CDC is trying to determine what the residents of downtown Belle Glade already know -- that poverty, drugs, and prostitution are bad for your health

Those reports were neither new nor unusual. A decade earlier a state report noted that in the Belle Glade area, open-pit toilets were located next to or within the only water supply. A child's meal consisted of a cold corn cob, tomato, dried prunes, and beer. A Palm Beach County health officer reported that the board of health knew about and ignored 21 sick children with dysentery living together in a boarding camp. By the time Hughley started school, Everglades historian Marjory Stoneman Douglas had described his neighborhood as "a human jungle."

Open-pit toilets are no longer the norm, but in Hughley's building the hallways, filled with puddles of stagnant rainwater, reek of mold and mildew. Earlier this month he arrived home from the Blue Bell at 4 a.m. to find a young woman standing alone outside his doorway, smoking crack. It wasn't the first time. "I just tell them to get that dope out of this hall and take it with them," he says coolly. "Smoke it anywhere but here." Sometimes the drug users give him a hard time, but the girl didn't say anything as she descended the concrete steps into the darkness.

Hughley is better off than some. The homeless and many drug addicts dwell in the more than 80 abandoned buildings in the city. Some spend their late-afternoon and early-evening hours playing dominoes in empty lots. The city has cited dozens of buildings for code violations and bought dozens more to be renovated, according to Mayor Steve Weeks, a lifetime resident of the city. But he offers a number of reasons why the city is unable to do more.

Problem one: Many downtown buildings are so old that it is nearly impossible to bring them up to code. Landlords would rather demolish the dirty, poorly ventilated buildings than spend the money to renovate them. The results would be a loss of tax revenue and an increase in homelessness. Problem two: Some downtown residents, particularly those on crack cocaine, simply will not change their lifestyles. Problem three: With its constant demand for cheap labor, Belle Glade continually attracts migrant workers who may be carrying diseases and are willing to live in substandard housing.

"Our biggest problem is unemployment," Weeks says. "We have an unemployment rate of 30-plus percent. We have poverty of 18 percent. When you have these numbers and growth at 2 percent a year, we have to work within a framework of a dwindling tax base."

The migrant workers to whom Weeks refers are up well before the sun. Most of them are Haitians, and in Belle Glade they gather in a downtown parking lot referred to as "the loading ramp." When they arrive, they climb aboard school buses provided by various agribusiness conglomerates, including A. Duda & Sons, one of the nation's largest fresh-vegetable companies. Once on the bus, they're told what the day's wages will be, and if it doesn't sound like enough, or if someone has heard that another farm is offering more, they'll exit the bus and try another one. If that bus is full, however, a worker may be shut out for the day. When the buses are full, they head for the farms, some of them carrying workers who have been guaranteed work for an entire season.

Thirty years ago Hughley would have been down at the loading ramp every morning. If you ask him about honest labor, he talks about the days he spent in a pool hall racking balls, the time he spent working in a laundromat, his years at a packing plant or picking corn and throwing hundred-pound crates of vegetables into a pile for nine hours a day to bring home a $50 paycheck. If he was lucky. Steady work was hard to come by, because a farm owner's needs were always changing, as was the weather. And the work was physically demanding, Hughley says. That part of it got old really quick.

He began his hand-to-mouth existence when his bid for a college football scholarship got sideswiped by a case of mistaken identity. Hughley was charged with murder just before beginning his last semester of high school. "Some guy said he saw me and this dude fighting," he explains as he sits down in a Burger King for his first decent meal in days. "He made that statement, but he had me wrong. It wasn't me. It was someone else. I was home in bed." Eventually the judge dismissed the case, and the police found the actual killer. But by the time Hughley's name was cleared, he'd missed his final semester of high school.

So, rather than go to college, he went to work in the fields with many of his former classmates. All were destined, he says, for a lifetime of either terrible jobs or the alternative: crime and possibly time in jail. When he was in his twenties, Hughley was so desperate that he and the mother of one of his kids struck up a deal: She'd become a prostitute, and he would be her pimp. That was his full-time job for seven years.

In downtown Belle Glade, trading sex for basic necessities such as food and money for bills, is a common practice, according to Dale Stratford, an anthropologist at the University of Florida. For years Stratford has been studying high-risk sexual behavior in the Glades.

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