Nineteen UC Hastings students spent three days of their winter break with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), surveying neighborhoods on the outskirts of Modesto.
The venture was their second collaboration with CRLA, one of the state’s largest legal aid organizations. Last year PILARC assisted with a survey of low-wage workers in Santa Cruz counties. This year, the group surveyed housing conditions for farm workers and then also interviewed residents in an unincorporated part of town about sewage and sanitation conditions. Many of those surveyed don’t speak English and they don’t have leadership or a voice or representation in the community, so CRLA told the students that going directly to the people affected is the best way to investigate conditions.
On the first day, students spread out to flea markets, churches and laundromats to see if they could identify farmworkers in the community. They found good news: most of the workers surveyed had safe and comfortable housing conditions. “We realized through the process that the seasonal timing was not ideal to get the population that we were targeting,” said 1L Dustin Hovda. “There are huge influxes that happen during harvest season, but over the winter there is very little work.”
But the second survey yielded more complaints. In an unincorporated area of Modesto, students documented dozens of instances of illegal dumping on private properties. They canvassed the residents, asking questions written by CRLA to find out if they recognized the dumping as an issue worthy of advocacy. In alleyways behind houses, they saw piles of trash that are left because people don’t want to pay the city to have it hauled away, explained 2L Stacy Kowalski. “It stinks and is not hygienic,” she said. “People were experiencing problems with not being able to use their backyards. There were instances of people burning large items in the alley, of homeless encampments, and drug use and sales,” she said. Such areas are not served by Modesto police, and the sheriffs in the area don’t have time or resources to crack down on the illegal activities.
Students also interviewed residents about sewage conditions. In unincorporated parts of town, city services like sidewalks, streetlamps and sewage are often not provided, though residents have electricity and water and garbage pick up. Because a majority of residents in this low-income area (where household income is often at or below $10,000 a year) live in rental properties, they experience delays and difficulties in getting landlords to maintain septic systems. “A lot of people were having problems with using their toilets, sometimes they were unable to use their bathrooms for a week, and raw sewage was flooding onto their properties,” said Kowalski. The students inquired whether residents were interested in connecting to city of Modesto sewage system and if they were able to pay the monthly amount and annual tax. Owners and renters were overwhelmingly in favor of this, so CRLA would be in a good position to advocate for them.
Even though what they saw and learned was occasionally disheartening, the students spoke about the positive power of the trip. L.L.M. student Zeynep Hiziroglu said she felt really useful. “It wasn’t just a survey. We were asking people questions about their real problems. Sometimes you don’t get it until you talk to the people who are affected. I think it was really important that we do something to improve their basic needs to have a sewage system.”
Kowalski, who is the advocacy director of HSIR and helped to organize the trip this year said that it is also an important social experience for the students. This year, they drove down together in five cars, and they all stayed in the family home of one of the students, bedding down in sleeping bags on the floor. “It was an important experience for me last year as a 1L to be with social-justice minded law students,” she said, “So that’s why I worked to organize it this year. It’s important for the people we are serving, and also important for the UC Hastings community.” Hovda agreed. “Most people I talked to were receptive to our questions and grateful for our effort. Working with HSIR has been a highlight of my first year,” he said.