Out here—just a few miles from world-class golf resorts, private hunting clubs and polo fields—half-naked children toddle barefoot through mud and filth while packs of feral dogs prowl piles of garbage nearby.
Thick smoke from mountains of burning trash drifts through broken windows. People—sometimes 30 or more—are crammed into trailers with no heat, no air-conditioning, undrinkable water, flickering power and plumbing that breaks down for weeks or months at a time.
“I was speechless,” said Haider Quintero, a Colombian training for the priesthood who recently visited the parks as part of his studies. “I never expected to see this in America.”
Riverside County officials say there are between 100 and 200 illegal trailer parks in the valley, but the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition says the number could be as high as 500.
California Rural Legal Assistance says as few as 20 parks are legal, and they are often as dilapidated as the illegal ones. When county inspectors locate a park without permits, they prefer to let owners bring the place into compliance through loan and grant programs rather than evict the tenants.
Some of the largest and poorest parks are on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation where they are not subject to local zoning laws and the county can’t monitor safety, hygiene and building standards. The reservation is also home to the worst illegal dumps of any tribe in California, Arizona or Nevada, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency has closed 10 of the 20 most toxic dumps and cited four of the largest trailer parks for health violations.
“Before the parks, they were living in their cars, in the desert and bathing in the canals. Five guys would pay 50 bucks a month to share a camper shell,” said Scott Lawson, a tribal member and co-owner of the Oasis park on the reservation. “Nobody cared when they lived like that, only when they moved into trailers. You can’t expect the poorest to live like the wealthiest. They feel comfortable here; it’s like being back in Mexico. They tell me that.”
Exactly how many people live in the trailer parks is unknown, but social workers estimate tens of thousands. The biggest park, Desert Mobile Home Park, or “Duroville,” has more than 4,000 residents and can be seen off California 195 near Thermal. Others are on private property and virtually invisible to passing motorists.
The tenants are almost entirely Latino farm or construction workers. Many are in the United States legally, but plenty are not. Their average income, according to county officials, is about $10,000 a year. Many parents rent out their children’s rooms for extra money, leaving kids to sleep on floors or in sheds. Many families keep warm by burning grape stakes, which fill their trailers with toxic fumes.
In one nameless park on the reservation off Avenue 70 in Thermal, trailers with broken windows and unhinged doors sit against piles of trash. Box springs, tires, car parts are stacked 10 feet high. Sewage runs behind the trailers, and wild dogs yap and howl.
The EPA has cited park owner Robin Lawson for clean-water violations; Lawson could not be reached for comment. He is Scott Lawson’s brother. Another brother, Kim, operated a vast, illegal dump for more than a decade that was shut down last year by a federal judge.
The presence of the parks on the reservation has frustrated Torres Martinez Tribal Chairman Raymond Torres.
“The owners started off with good intentions, then I think it overwhelmed them,” he said. “I have a real problem with it. Someone is going to get hurt. I’d like to see the parks gone and the owners start over again.”
But in the complex world of tribal sovereignty, Torres cannot close the parks; only the Bureau of Indian Affairs can. The bureau said last week that parks on the reservation are illegal because they do not issue bureau-approved leases to tenants. They are now threatening legal action against Duroville and said other parks could be next.
Trailer parks began springing up on Indian land largely because of a county crackdown. In 1998, after several fatal accidents caused by faulty wiring, Riverside County began closing parks that did not have permits and threatening to sue others not up to code. Faced with outrage from farmworker advocates and the Roman Catholic Church, who feared thousands could be rendered homeless, officials backed off, but not before many panicked park dwellers had moved onto the reservation.
Although poverty is endemic in the parks, nothing rivals Duroville for sheer blight.
The 40-acre park is a grim, colorless warren of dirt roads with more than 300 trailers tightly packed inside. It’s often hard to tell an abandoned scrap heap from a home. There are start-up businesses—car dealerships, a small taco stand and a restaurant specializing in Michoacan food—squeezed in amid the clutter. Trash blows here and there. Toddlers, some naked from the waist down, wander around in fetid muck. A wall surrounds part of the place, a thin barrier separating it from the dump.
What began as occupants of a few trailers seeking refuge from the county has turned into a vast slum bearing streets named after members of park owner Harvey Duro’s family. Duro declined to comment for this article.
Efforts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to close Duroville fizzled in 2003 when the owner agreed to make basic electrical and sewage improvements. Still, officials said, he has failed to provide tenants bureau-approved leases defining minimum living standards.
Duroville is a bastion of poverty divided between the poor and the desperately poor. Among the most destitute are the Purepecha, an indigenous people from the Mexican state of Michoacan who speak neither Spanish nor English but their own language, Purepechan. They are often mocked by other Latinos who consider them backward.
In their culture, girls often marry young and drop out of school to have children.
At night, the dark streets come alive with thumping rap and mariachi music pouring from cars. Ice cream vendors work the narrow streets. Because there are no sidewalks, pedestrians keep a wary eye on traffic. Men gather in front of trailers, some drinking themselves into oblivion. Others have hard stares and watchful eyes. Residents say drug dealing is rife.