La Casa offers migrants a temporary home - Catholic Courier

La Casa offers migrants a temporary home

SODUS — Infant pajamas hung in a bathroom, serving as a visual reminder of the two babies who have found their first home at La Casa during the past year.

A total of 19 families have walked through the doors of the migrant-housing center in search of a temporary home after arriving in the area. Most of them have found work on area farms and factories that process produce, La Casa officials said during an interview at the house Sept. 22. Although most of the families have been Mexican, the first woman to live in the house was from Estonia.

“When they first come, they come with nothing,” said Peter Mares, manager of La Casa and a community-outreach worker for Catholic Charities of Wayne County. “We take them to get food. They get uncomfortable at first. But no one’s been … trouble. Everyone’s been great.”

Although dedicated last October by Bishop Matthew H. Clark, Mares noted that La Casa — a joint project of Catholic Charities of Wayne County and of diocesan Catholic Charities’ Project Unity — did not house residents until January 2005 when it received a certificate of occupancy from Wayne County.

Two paid workers and hundreds of volunteers from about 60 parishes throughout the Diocese of Rochester helped gut the house because of asbestos and lead paint removal, according to Mercy Sister Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. They then rebuilt the house’s interior, including the installation of plumbing and wiring, as well as painting ceilings and rebuilding walls. With a $60,000 mortgage loan from the Leviticus Fund, they were able to make a $5,000 down payment on the house, Sister Korn added.

During an open house in August, many of the volunteers came to check on the house’s progress, Sister Korn noted, pointing to the areas they worked on as they looked around.

The house has one studio apartment, which Mares uses an office, a three-bedroom apartment on the first floor and two two-bedroom apartments on the second floor. The first-floor laundry room also includes a food pantry, which is stocked by area churches, according to Mares. He added that La Casa has remained fully occupied since it began accepting residents.

“They’re real proud of it,” Mares said of the families that he has helped at La Casa. “They take care of it. They haven’t seen anything like this anywhere.”

One of the former residents left behind a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which Mares said remains on a first-floor mantle surrounded by vases of roses in honor of Mary. All the furniture and appliances also have been donated. Items not currently being used, including several cribs, are kept in a storage area in the house.

“It is beautiful that the church works to help people this way,” said Victor Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico who has traveled to the Rochester area the past four years to work at area farms and orchards. He lived in the house for a couple of months until he found his own apartment nearby this fall.

Having experienced poor living conditions in overcrowded migrant-worker encampments during previous harvest seasons, Rivera added that he is grateful to God that a place such as La Casa now exists.

“It helps to have time to earn money, buy a car, save up some money, buy a bed,” he said.

“They are helping us at a time when we need it the most,” agreed a current resident of La Casa who is a native of Puebla, Mexico. “La Casa is ‚Ķ (something) that is greatly needed.”

Catholic Charities officials spent more than a year finding the most suitable house and agreed that locating La Casa in the Village of Sodus has offered advantages over a more rural location. Transportation is a major obstacle for migrant workers, they noted.

From La Casa, “they can walk everywhere, to church, to the Laundromat,” said Loretta Kruger, executive director of Catholic Charities of Wayne County.

Mares said that word of mouth has been effective in letting migrant workers know about the availability of housing at La Casa. As part of Catholic Charities, Kruger explained, La Casa is connected to a large service-provider network that refers clients to the house. Also through that network, La Casa also tries to offer residents such other community resources as classes in literacy and English as a Second Language, Mares added

Community reaction to La Casa has been positive, Kruger noted, as officials worked to help residents understand that it was not going to be a homeless shelter with large groups congregating there.

“It’s been good,” she said. “Our efforts in this area were to assure … that we were not changing the character of the neighborhood or the use of the building — four apartments for residential use.”

Sodus resident Carmen Acevedo agreed that the house has been well received in the area. Noting that she is someone who likes to help others when she is able, she said that she has brought meals and other such necessities after hearing about the project from Mares.

“It’s wonderful, a tranquil place,” she added. “At La Casa, it is very safe. It is a very good place in that sense. … And it has greatly benefitted the community.”

It costs about $60,000 annually to run the house, and the work is never done, according to Sister Korn. The house still needs new gutters and more cabinets to store items in the cellar. And as families move out, La Casa also continually needs donations to help them get off to a good start.

Tenants have not been asked to pay rent thus far. Mares said that he may begin asking residents to make key deposits and pay a small stipend in order to help them make the transition to apartment living, where they will be expected to pay for all their living expenses.

“If they can’t do it, they can’t do it,” Kruger remarked. “But we don’t want to provide everything because it’ll be more difficult to enter the real world.”

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