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

In fact, she is quick to point out, there are a number of AIDS prevention and education programs that work in conjunction with community leaders and volunteers. Programs exist throughout the city to distribute condoms, to educate students about drug use and safe sex, and to help low-income residents find adequate health and prenatal care in western Palm Beach County. Kannel, who is on the health survey board and does not live in the Glades, says it is impossible to determine the success of these programs. She notes, however, that CAP provides counseling to 300 Glades clients and helps them get treatment for HIV and related illnesses. Without programs such as CAP, she says, the problems would be much worse.

While this may be true, the health problems in the Glades region have deep historical roots. As early as 1917, when an epidemic of typhoid fever nearly destroyed the entire population of Moore Haven, a nearby town in Glades County, residents thought first of their reputation, and second of solving health problems. "Some of the sick folks were taken care of here, but most of them were sent to the nearest hospital, which was in far off Tampa," Belle Glade icon Lawrence Will wrote of the epidemic in his 1964 book, Lawrence Will's Cracker History of Okeechobee. "Nobody died, but the health authorities quarantined the town and tried to have it declared unfit for human habitation, and that didn't help this town's reputation much."

More than 40 years later, as the migrant worker became a permanent fixture in western Palm Beach County, the health problems still had not been addressed. In the classic CBS news documentary Harvest of Shame (1960), which chronicles the plight of the migrant worker, nine-year-old Jerome King leans against his bed in a Belle Glade labor camp. One of his feet is scabbed and rank-looking, as if infected. He explains that his mother simply poured alcohol over the wound to wash it. Later in the film, Jerome's mother, Allean, tells the reporter that, even after picking beans for as much as ten hours a day, she doesn't make nearly enough to support her fourteen children.

Today, Jerome King lives with one of his sisters and several of their respective children in nearby South Bay in an old A-frame house. Desperately in need of repair, the house sits precariously on a series of crumbling pillars. The two cars in the driveway have flat tires. Although many Belle Glade residents and politicians claimed Harvest of Shame was way too sensational at the time, King says he found it to be completely accurate in its portrayal. Like his parents before him, King is a day laborer in the fields, picking beans and sweet corn.

The city's history notwithstanding, politicians are as short on answers now as they were when Harvest of Shame was first broadcast. When Weeks was asked why the city has done so little for so long when it comes to health problems, he said: "Beats the heck out of me."

Others involved in the community outreach effort offer more revealing responses: "OK, bottom line, there was prejudice," acknowledges Kannel. "You know what? There probably still is." Middle-class residents who did not have to go downtown simply ignored the problems because they were not in their back yard, she notes.

But some community leaders and doctors claim that attitudes have changed.
"I think the previous times the people here have had the knowledge, but they didn't have the political will," offers Dr. C. Robert Horsburgh of the CDC. The makeup of the Glades Survey board represents all segments of the community, an indication, he says, that this time the will to make some serious changes exists.

For his part Hughley is a lot less optimistic. He says that, in the last 50 years, the health problems have only gotten worse. Thirty-one years ago tuberculosis killed his father, who was a migrant worker laboring in the vegetable fields. The way Hughley remembers it, his father lived and worked for seven years with only one lung. That lung eventually collapsed from the strain. Six years ago his only brother died of pneumonia. His mother died the same year. Of what, he's not sure; he just knows that he found her lying in her bed one day, a trail of dried blood trickling from her nose. The Hughley family members' illnesses may very well have been treatable, but he says they couldn't afford adequate health care. Already diagnosed with HIV at the time of his mother's death, Hughley moved out of his mother's house that year and into a tiny room downtown.

"When I got back here, I got stuck," he says, remembering that return trip from Cleveland more than 40 years ago. He laughs at the thought, and soon the laughter turns into a phlegmy cough. He doesn't have tuberculosis, he claims, because he gets tested for it as part of his HIV treatment. He simply has a cold.

"You really get stuck in this place," he resumes. "You get where you have no money, no job, no clothes. It really got bad here.

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