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Children's Board helps migrants families

For many migrant farm workers living in this southern Hillsborough County community, public assistance is of no help at all. Not eligible for food stamps or other aid because they are waiting for citizenship, farm workers have little chance of assistance despite obvious poverty.

In an unusual step, the Hillsborough County Children's Board is trying to fill that gap.

The board has allocated $40,000 in emergency funds to farm workers affected by the Christmas freeze and who cannot receive traditional

government-sponsored help.

Vouchers for food, housing and utilities will be administered through the Hillsborough County Department of Public Assistance, said Will Michaels, executive director of the board.

Michaels said the allocation is not a typical program for the board, although it is consistent with the board's policy of helping children.

"Here, we recognized we really have a hidden disaster in the community," Michaels said. "We didn't want the children to suffer."

The Redlands Christian Migrants Association in Ruskin has been charged with finding needy families affected by the freeze, which destroyed much of the citrus crop.

"The Children's Board can help these people," said Clem Miller, a project director at Redlands. He said most farm workers who applied to be citizens under the federal amnesty program are not eligible to receive government assistance, such as food stamps or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Residents in this country illegally, many of whom work in the fields, also are ineligible for help.

Antonia Barber, a manager with the county public assistance department, said the program will start next week. She said the county will not give families cash, but will pay food, housing and energy bills directly.

She said any family whose income was hurt by the freeze can apply for help.

A study by the Children's Board said that 25,000 to 30,000 migrant farm workers, many of them children, live in Hillsborough County. The freeze left many without work or money to pay bills.

"What we are seeing since the freeze is a lot of underemployment," Miller said. "People who would have normally been working five, six or even seven days a week are now working only two or three days. We have seen quite a few eviction notices and final bills for water and electricity."

Miller said that although workers were busy just after the freeze trying to salvage the crop for fruit juice, field work is not available now.

Workers at the Beth-El Presbyterian Mission in Wimauma and the St. Vincent De Paul Society in Ruskin said the number of families looking for help has increased dramatically. Many patients are unable to pay the minimum fee at the Ruskin Migrant and Community Health Center.

While the grant from the Children's Board is small compared to the need, Barber said, anything will help.

"At this point, it's very welcome," she said.