The sign at The ARCHES Project. (Anthony McGuire/Special to Salem Reporter)

In the past year, the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency handed out millions to those struggling to pay rent during the pandemic.

More than half of those who received help through that program were Latino.

“I think it was a big eye opener for us. There’s a lot more (Latinos) out there than we were realizing,” said Adriana Escobar, a community service navigator at The ARCHES Project who has been helping connect people with rental assistance funds.

She’s leading a new effort at the agency to help unhoused or underhoused farmworkers in Marion and Polk counties connect to child care, food, healthcare and interpreting.

Breezy Aguirre, associate director at ARCHES, said the number of Latinos reaching out for help during the pandemic didn’t match up with the typical ratio of people they were serving.

“It helped us to realize that we really were not serving that population in a way that was appropriate and culturally responsible,” she said.

Escobar’s father, aunts and uncles have worked on farms since they were children.

She sought their family’s help when coming up with a name for a new program.

“When I started this program I’m like, ‘How can I include them? How could I make them feel a part of it?’” she said.

Her aunt came up with the name Fuerza Campesina. Fuerza, means strength, resilience or power, and campesina means farmer or laborer.

Fuerza Campesina is a program The ARCHES Project started in May to address language barriers Spanish speakers faced when calling the social services nonprofit for help.

Escobar said ARCHES was getting phone calls from people speaking Spanish and didn’t have enough bilingual employees to return the calls.

Now, there’s a main number for Fuerza Campesina so people know where to call to reach a Spanish-speaker.

There are three employees: Escobar, an assessment specialist, and a housing navigator.

Assessment specialists help people access housing opportunities.

The program is funded through a grant from Legacy Health and Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Since Fuerza Campesina started, they have returned 393 phone calls, for things like rental assistance or food boxes.

“Just for individuals to not have to navigate all of these different resources in order to find one person that can speak to them and explain things to them in a language they understand,” Aguirre said.

A common piece of feedback Escobar has heard, “Now I can call back. Now I know where to call.”

She said a lot of Latino families don’t see themselves as homeless or unhoused because they have a roof over their head, even if they’re sharing a small home with five families.

Escobar plans to work with other agencies like the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation and Oregon Child Development Coalition to connect people to services like child care and keep children in school.

She said people often have trouble accessing transportation to get to the downtown Salem office, so the program got a van so they can meet them where they’re at.

She also has plans for after-hours phone calls when people are more likely to pick up.

“You know I’m just really excited to get it off the ground and get it going. This is a population that really tugs at my heart strings,” she said.

Fuerza Campesina can be reached at 503-399-9080 ext. 4045 or by emailing [email protected]

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

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