Community rallies behind evicted Belle Glade families

Donations of food, clothing pouring in for tenants
Posted at 6:21 PM, Dec 23, 2016

We live in a community where neighbor helps neighbor.

Nearly 30 families who lost their homes without warning have hope tonight, because countless neighbors are stepping up to help.

On Thursday, WPTV first reported on an apartment building on MLK Boulevard in Belle Glade that was condemned due to dangerous conditions. Families were given just hours to get out, with many of them having no where to go on such short notice.

"It's a part of life. It's better to have gotten out now than to have waited for the building to catch on fire or do more damage," said Florina Louis, one of the displaced residents.

Local non-profits, businesses and even the mayor's office are coming together to make sure the families have what they need.

"When it first happened, we thought we were by ourselves, but the mayor and his wife and the crew had come out. They helped to move everybody and get us into hotels and that made the process easier -- just lifted the weight off of us," said Louis.

Louis is only 19. She is one of the few in the group of displaced residents who speaks English, so she has been translating Creole for the volunteers as they assist the tenants. Many of the residents are farmers.

"It gives us more strength, just to know that we're not alone and that we weren't stranded, like how we thought we were," said Louis. "That people actually cared about us enough to do efforts to volunteer to help us out."

Local non-profits Ella's Closet and Lighthouse Cafe -- which are both run under the Allen Family at RC Hatton Farms -- donated clothes, food and toiletries.

The Patel family, who owns two hotels in the area, opened up their rooms for free.

"I feel terrible when people have to be out on very short notice, they have no other place to go. I'm here to help anyway I can," said Patel. "I don't like to have no one on the street, especially at this time of year," said Dilip Patel, owner of Horizon Inn and Okeechobee Inn.

Belle Glade mayor Steve Wilson and his wife spent the day transporting people to work or breakfast through the town van. He says he couldn't ask for a better response from the community.

"It's the Christmas spirit but even if it wasn't Christmas, its our responsibility to make sure that these families get taken care of," he said. "No one's going to be left behind."

Mayor Wilson and Alicia said they came back to the building on Friday morning to make sure no one was left behind. What they found brought them to tears.

"I found this elderly lady. She was waiting behind the building, sitting outside. She didn't have any place to go," said Alicia. "I am so glad that we came back."

That woman is now staying at Okeechobee Inn.

County commissioner Melissa McKinlay says while they work with the property owner for a solution, the first step was to get the tenants under a roof.

"With the holiday closing starting today, most government offices aren't opening back up until Tuesday. So there's not a whole lot we can do over the weekend except make sure they are sheltered," she said.

McKinlay says the county has to wait until next week to start work on relocating the families. Officials have already been working on finding new housing for 15 families displaced last week at a property nearby the building that was condemned on Thursday, according to McKinlay.

"Come Tuesday, the county will have social services out there meeting with the residents trying to find permanent housing for them," she said. "Whether it's Christmas or July, the Glades community and the farmers out there -- when the need arises -- are there to help out as best they can."

In the meantime, the Florida Crystals company is donating $150 gift cards to each of the families. They will go on a Walmart shopping spree on Saturday morning, bringing more holiday cheer to the families in need.

"A lot of families and people who couldn't stand up for themselves," said Louis about the volunteers. "You guys were able to help us stand up for each other."

Also on Saturday morning, the local Palm Beach County fire station will be cooking food for the families at the Okeechobee Inn.

On Friday afternoon, WPTV was there when volunteers with the Palm Beach County School District dropped off a giant bin filled with rice, ready-to-make meals and canned goods. The food, which was collected by Mrs. Hall's class at Glade Central Community High School, will be distributed to families on Saturday.