Brazilians Try to Repair Lives After Fire


Three weeks after an Edgartown house fire destroyed the home of 14 Brazilians, the displaced immigrants still struggle to secure a new foothold on the Island.

"A lot of the people are still recuperating. Much of that money [they lost] was to get them through the winter. They are trying to get on their feet again," said Elio Silva, a member of the Brazilian community familiar with those who lost their home.

A late night fire - ignited by what officials believe to have been a small space heater in a partitioned bedroom - consumed the three-bedroom, one-bathroom Curtis Lane home earlier this month. The tragedy destroyed all but a set of clothes for each of the foreign workers, including an estimated $4,300 in cash.

At least two of the fire victims headed home to Brazil last week with their expired work visas and nothing more to show for six months of work in America than a few hundred dollars. The rest of the Brazilians, friends say, claim floor space in other cramped houses while they work to save enough money to offer the sizable deposit required for most Island rental properties.

But they take the loss in stride, Mr. Silva said. "I guess when you don't know any better, you don't miss what you never had."

Conditions in the Curtis Lane home, owned by Therese and Benjamin Hall Sr. and often referred to as the "chicken shack," were poor at best, former residents said. The home had no smoke detectors. Extension cords ran across the front yard to a battered van that served as sleeping quarters for one of the 14 tenants. Sixty-four-year-old Mercia Souza, the cook for the all-male household, slept on a mattress in the attic.

"They are in too vulnerable a position to complain. For them, it's just one more thing in a world of obstacles facing immigrants here. It's just a step along the way," said Rev. Donnel O'Flynn, minister of Grace Episcopal Church, who has joined other Island clergy anxious to help the Brazilian community.

The Martha's Vineyard chapter of the American Red Cross offered the fire victims clothing vouchers for the second-hand store in Edgartown - gifts the homeless Brazilians seized this week in the form of sweaters and jackets as the Vineyard autumn weather turned cold.

Several other citizens rallied to their aid recently with efforts to collect food and money. But the efforts, some volunteers suggest, have been futile thus far.

"Helping them is a challenge for our community. We don't have a reliable way of dealing with the Brazilian community," said Reverend O'Flynn, who has in his church office bundles of clothing collected by parishioners after the fire.

Heightened vulnerability and worry spread through the Brazilian community in recent weeks in the aftermath of not only the fire but also the drownings of two members of the community in Sengekontacket Pond. Word of an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) search on the Vineyard triggered rumors across the Island last week.

INS officials in Boston, however, denied any arrests and would not confirm an official visit to the Island. Other sources said INS agents had been on the Vineyard to ask questions in business circles.

"We're out to remove criminal aliens from the streets of Massachusetts. We're not out to do area control," said Paula Grenier of the public administration office for the INS's Boston division, explaining that sweeps to check immigrant visas are not high on the priority list for an agency caught in a budget squeeze.

The fire offered the Island community a bleak picture of the living conditions commonly endured by an estimated Brazilian population of 2,000. Cramped conditions are usually but one of a host of sanitary and safety issues in their homes, which range from Asian bed bugs to exposed electrical wiring. And immigrants often pay exorbitant rents for these substandard conditions. Ms. Souza reported that her 14-person household paid $12,000 a month for sleeping space in the Curtis Lane home.

As the fire victims seek security before winter sets in, Edgartown officials are mobilizing to attack the housing problems plaguing so many of the Island's foreign workers.

Copies of a rental housing licensing program in the town of Yarmouth circulated through Edgartown's town hall this week, and town officials will be discussing the potential of adopting these model regulations and of creating a housing department within the town.

Overwhelmed by owners jamming their substandard properties with tenants in the 1970s, the town of Yarmouth began requiring property owners to license rental properties. The licensing process grants the town housing inspector access to the property to verify minimal code adherence.

"We've been considering Yarmouth's approach for quite some time. The fire highlighted the fact that we need to get to it. It's become clear that now's the time to do it," said Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole.

If adopted, the town could require all rental property owners to register properties with the housing inspector. Such a program would most likely require an additional inspector for the town financed through licensing fees.

Enforcing Massachusetts human habitation sanitary code - otherwise known as "slumlord" regulations - has been a nightmare for town officials.

Health agents may only gain access to a rental property suspected of violations if the tenant invites them in or the court grants an administrative search warrant. Fearing eviction or deportation, tenants are often skeptical of officials like Mr. Poole - particularly those foreign workers living here illegally.

The threshold for issuing search warrants, said Edgartown district court clerk magistrate Thomas Teller, is high.

"Officials must have an awful lot of knowledge about what's going on in a household, and those sorts of facts are hard to gather," Mr. Teller explained, noting that in his 39 years as clerk magistrate he has issued less than four.

Town officials count their blessings that the dangerous situation claimed no lives in the Oct. 10 fire.

"If you pack a house with lots of people and have extension cords running all over the place, you are asking for a problem. It's very easy when you have people cramming in a room or in a basement to have bodies to account for," said board of health member David Murphy.

But informing Brazilians about their tenant rights will continue to challenge Island officials.

"Educating the Brazilian community about their human rights, not just their rights under Massachusetts law, is vitally important. They need to know they should not be taken by their landlords," said Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

In the meantime, some in the Brazilian community are doing their part to spread the word. But word, Mr. Silva said, may come in the form of a red-flag warning.

"We want Brazilians to call us first before they come. If they knew about the living quarters, they may think twice. They pay rent before they come and end up with one bed when they thought they would get a room," Mr. Silva said.

"We need to let people know sometimes they are better off staying where they are," he added.