By Hannah Brandt
By now, most of Fresno and the Central Valley knows about the desperate situation at Summerset Village Apartments in south central Fresno. The squalid conditions have made headlines for weeks since the Fresno City Council and the media were alerted to the multitude of code violations by property management. The most pressing issue has been a lack of heat and hot water, but severe problems with mold, cockroaches, rodents, unrepaired floors, walls and windows, as well as broken appliances, have also plagued residents.
This came to light when a worker across the street at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) became aware that the tenants he was helping were living under such conditions. As soon as he realized the scope of the problem, he contacted a Fresno City Council member and tipped off the media. Once city government took notice and demanded that the property owner comply with the code enforcement required by state law, such as providing basic necessities like hot water and heating, all eyes have been on Summerset.
Slowly, residents began getting aid in the form of space heaters, blankets and food provided by FIRM, the Red Cross and California Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Ministries (CSBDRM). The latter was contacted by the Red Cross because its state headquarters is in Fresno. Other local organizations worked hard to coordinate access to food and hot showers as well. The CSBDRM was able to provide the most equipment, such as trailers with 11 showers available round the clock and a laundry unit that can wash and dry six loads at a time. The CSBDRM also began feeding residents on Thanksgiving Day. Santy Paphol and I saw the organization setting up at Summerset the day before the November holiday.
An industrial-scale, restaurant-quality mobile kitchen was erected at Summerset by the CSBDRM to feed hundreds of residents. As of Dec. 11, when Paphol and I got speak to the workers and get a tour of their worksite, they had been feeding tenants for two weeks. More than 700 meals a day were being served by the CSBDRM at Summerset. The service has been growing steadily since residents have heard about the organization’s provisions.
One reason the operation has been effective is that workers at the CSBDRM realized their experience alone could not properly serve Summerset’s predominantly Southeast Asian population. That was when they contacted FIRM and brought in Molly Maokosy to help cook meals. Growing up eating the same foods as most of Summerset’s tenants, Maokosy recommended changes to the menu that have made the effort a greater success. Substituting the sticky rice cooked so often in Asian homes and incorporating vegetables like bok choy and lemongrass have brought a cozy familiarity to people living in uncertain and uncomfortable circumstances.
Many of the residents came to the United States as refugees, and some do not speak English fluently. Navigating lease agreements and understanding tenant rights is hard enough when a language barrier is not present. We saw some tenants cooking on hot plates on the floor because their stovetops did not work. Hot meals cooked with care take away the burden of cooking without running hot water or non-functioning stove burners.
According to Dan Hargus, director of the California chapter of the CSBDRM, their equipment is stored in various Fresno homes ready to go in case of an emergency. He had just returned from working in Nepal with the CSBDRM, where they had been called in to continue recovery efforts from the country’s 2014 earthquake. Bennett Haman, communications director for the CSBDRM, showed us photos of the rescue operations they do in the Sierra Nevada mountains, going into wildfire ravaged areas and cleaning out damaged properties for reconstruction.
For Maokosy and the other CSBDRM workers, having industrial-sized equipment has made it easier to prepare meals for such large numbers of people. The mobile field kitchen can provide as many as 100,000 meals and feed up to 20,000 people displaced by natural disasters, or in this case a man-made disaster. Maokosy has made 490 chicken thighs in the convection ovens and makes 430 fresh rice packets per meal every day. Volunteers chop vegetables at a table nearby.
Everyone works together, focused on making the best food as fast as they can. They are never sure how many people will show up for a meal, but they make certain they have enough so they do not run out or have to turn a resident away. All the workers have been toiling away without stopping long enough to take a photo. Posed in front of the gigantic pots on massive portable burners, they ask if we will take a group shot for them before we leave.
Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or hrbananah@gmail. com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ HannahBP2.