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Torres Martinez Opposed to Tent City Project

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MECCA, Calif. - Several nonprofit organizations led by a group called the Global Church has established a command center for the purposes of creating a tent city for migrant workers in land situated in the midst of the Torres Martinez reservation.

However, there is one small problem. No one asked the tribe first.

"It's like having 20,000 uninvited guests over," said Torres Martinez Executive Director Laura Hopkins.

Ostensibly meant to deal with the problem of housing migrant labor in the increasingly pricey Coachella Valley, organizers of the tent city claim that they are trying to highlight the serious problem of housing availability for the seasonal labor that pours into a region that supplies much of the nation with winter crops.

The issue is clouded by the status of the land in question. The Torres Martinez reservation was recently expanded in a settlement with the federal government over land the tribe had lost when irrigation canals from the Colorado River overflowed and filled in a dry lake bed.

The reservation is divided into a "checkerboard" pattern in which alternating squares of Indian and non-Indian land sit contiguously in adjacent plots. The land in question is privately held and is not under the direct control of the tribe.

However, the tent city would sit in what Hopkins calls the "most densely populated" portion of the reservation area and is only accessible through Torres Martinez. Currently there are 11,000 residents in the immediate area.

"There is no way that we can absorb an almost instant tripling of population in a [three square mile area]," said Ben Scoville, the acting planning director for Torres Martinez.

The tribe, among the poorer in the state only recently inked a modest gaming compact with the state of California and has very little infrastructure to speak of.

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Scoville points out that the tribe does not have a police force and has to rely on the Riverside County Sheriff's Department for their law enforcement needs. Scoville said a project of the magnitude of the tent city would be far beyond the scope of the tribe to deal with.

Scoville listed the potential problems that could be associated with the tent city that he said the organizers have failed to address. Among them are such basic infrastructure problems of food, water and sanitation.

Among these problems Scoville claims that the organizers of the project failed to address, the most serious is sanitation. He said there is no existing sewer system and in an area known for water scarcity there is not an easily accessible supply of clean water.

Hopkins likens the tent city to a "dump" moving in next to a neighborhood and complains that the proposed project might also bring down real estate values for tribal members in the immediate vicinity.

However, Scoville and Hopkins counter criticism that the tribe is insensitive to the plight of the migrant workers. They say they are willing to address the problem of homeless migrant workers both within their reservation boundaries and in the surrounding communities.

Although the non-profit coalition has set up a "command center," they are not easily reached for comment. The primary group behind the project, the Perris, California-based Global Church is not listed in the phone book or in other church directories and other affiliated groups do not have listings or Web sites.

Scoville and Hopkins said the group had told them it was not their intention to embarrass the tribe, but rather to highlight the out of control problem with homeless migrant labor in the community. According to the Riverside, Calif. based Press Enterprise, an estimated 16,000 homeless migrant workers currently reside in the desert scrub within the confines of the Torres Martinez Reservation.

The tribe said it will meet with Riverside County officials to try to find some kind of solution. They have already issued an order to the tent city organizers to desist and say they want to come up with a better solution that goes through the normal permitting process.

Scoville also wonders why the county has waited so long to become involved.

"I find it really puzzling that the local government would even let it all get to this point."