Children of the Dump 
   
 
This house was built in Mexico and the homes we build will have the same look.  

housing

    The "Peanuts" character Peppermint Patty once famously complained that "I'm in favor of progress.  I just don't like change."  There are many times I sympathize with her, no more so than over the past few years in Puerto Vallarta.

    The world has seen a lot of change in the past several years, and people from Greece to China to the USA have suffered for it.    The change has been especially painful and disruptive for people in the developing nations.  I have witnessed the effects of the cataclysm vividly among the dump families.

    It seemed clear to me that for all the progress we had made feeding families and educating children, the change forced on the dump families required that we adopt a fresh approach to the assistance we provide them.  My suspicions were not facts, however, the dump has been closed and now the transfer station is closed and the dump community is picked up each morning and the people are taken to the new dump about one hour away, where refuse is sorted and recycled. Never the less, the economic disruption has resulted in there being a much larger dump population than we'd ever expected there to be.

   -- the dump area is an environmental disaster and a political football local-- the Puerto Vallarta government is in severe financial difficulty.  We have supported the dump families in forming their own civil association, which gives them marginally more political clout than they had before.  Among other things, the civil association has been instrumental in keeping them working at the new dump, where they make about 100 pesos a day or about $5.00 US, and the role of the civil association in speaking up for the dump residents is vital.  Even with the civil association, the areas around the dump look more like refugee tent cities or third-world shanty towns than a community.

     -- children under 14 are no longer permitted to work at the dump.  For the most part, they are now attending public schools.

   The results of our study were pretty clear: unless we are able to improve the lives of the dump families in their communities, the gains we have made in education and feeding will evaporate. 

    We are actively engaging the civil association - the formation of which we supported - to be involved with us in finding solutions to the poverty, drugs, crime and education problems of the dump area.  In Mexico's dumps, squatters have property rights under the law, but that can be of scant reassurance when powerful political and financial forces are aligned against the squatters.  Municipal water service has been extended to the dump area, and a new regional hospital and roads have been built nearby.  This has greatly increased the value of the land on which the dump families live.  With the financial problems of the local government, its ability and interest in addressing the problems of its poorest citizens is lessened.  Maintaining a vibrant and active civil association helps give dump families a voice they've never had before.

    It is abundantly clear to us that unless we can provide a stable home environment to dump families, nothing else we do will matter that much.  And a stable home environment starts with a home.  Currently, the 100-peso a day wages dump workers bring home are not enough to pay for housing.  That fact is reflected in the condition of dump-area homes, mostly built of cast-off tarpaulins, old bed springs, cardboard, scrap lumber and dirt.  The homes lack much electricity, running water and basic sanitation, and exist in a community environment of dust, filth, drugs and crime.  Add to that the average annual temperature of 80 degrees and the torrential rains from June through September, and you can imagine the task parents face raising happy, healthy, upstanding and educated children.

   It seemed to us that the focus kept coming back to adequate, cheap housing.  The usual low-income housing in Mexico is concrete-block construction.  This is superior to tarps and cardboard, but in the summer sun, the concrete absorbs heat and becomes a virtual oven.  Additionally, the construction is relatively costly for us to try to replicate on any scale, and it lacks the inexpensive flexibility we need for sanitation, plumbing and expansion.  We explored recycled plastic, wood frame and concrete block designs, considering cost of construction and maintenance, as well as ease of construction by relatively unskilled and volunteer work teams.

   We have explored alternative housing in some detail, and we settled on some Habitat for Humanity designs that we have modified for use in the dump.  The structures will use dirt-filled "Earth Bags" insulated with recycled Styrofoam and covered with stucco, with each unit having a bathroom, kitchen, living area and two bedrooms.  A rooftop garden will permit the residents to raise fruits and vegetables, while reflecting heat.  The design permits expansion to a second floor.  The units will rely on solar hot water, and have running water, and an electric refrigerator/freezer and washing machine.

   The entire residence will cost about $15,000 to build and equip.

      Our initiative to provide housing in the dump area is still developing.  Our hope is to build 10 units in 2018 and about 15 units in 2019.  We launched construction during the summer break period in the United States and Canada on July 23, 2013 an have a new home that has been completed, the family has all five of their children in school.

   As for the property on which to build the homes, we currently have 50 sites that we can have the ability to build on shortly, and we have been discussing additional acquisition with DIF, the Puerto Vallarta social agency.  As for the thornier issue as to who will get the homes as they are built, we have been working with the civil association and will include DIF in developing a set of selection criteria that are fair and objective.  Initially, we are considering standards that include (1) that the families must have their children in school; (2) that the families must assist in the construction of their homes; and (3) that families must reside in their homes and their children must graduate from High School prior to selling or renting, and must use any proceeds of rental and sale to reimburse for the cost of the homes.  These standards - which are similar in some ways to those used by Habitat for Humanity - are still a work in progress.

   We are also focusing on how to manage the mission trips we see as an integral part of the plan.  We want to recruit 40-member teams, with each member contributing $350 toward the construction costs of the home.  Bethel Church in Puerto Vallarta has offered to host Mission Teams who come to work on the project, and we'll be soliciting other local churches to provide a place for our teams to stay as well.  In addition, individuals or families who want to work for a day or a week will have the ability to fit right in to the program.

   As for the teams themselves, we're going to be sending a letter to all of our supporters, inviting them to assemble Mission Teams through their local churches.  Because Puerto Vallarta is a friendship city to Tacoma, Washington - where I was once mayor - we plan to send a separate solicitation to Tacoma-area churches, inviting them to send their members in a spirit of friendship with the residents of a sister city. 

   Internally, we've rewritten our Mission Trip Planning Guide to describe the home-building project and to provide the needed information for prospective Mission Teams.  We've also plan to open an Internet store that allows people to buy items needed for the homes directly, using credit cards or Paypal.

   We have much to do, but we are enthusiastic.  The dump has changed, but the very basic needs have not.  We're pleased with the study we've done, even though some of the lessons were painful.

   Please send your ideas, thoughts and criticisms.  And we look forward to seeing all of you soon in Puerto Vallarta ... with your hard hats and shovels at the ready!

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