Since 2005, Puertas Abiertas has acted as a one stop shop for the Latino community in Napa, California. The small organization, led by Executive Director Melissa Patrino, offers comprehensive programs to Latino adults that are designed around four key pillars: Self-Sufficiency, Healthy Living, Community Engagement, and Latino Outreach. In the last year alone, Puertas Abiertas received over 1800 walk-ins, and has remained one of very few organizations in the area that focuses on the undocumented immigrant population. To put it mildly, the demand for organizations like Puertas Abiertas that truly understand and cater to the needs of its community is high.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, as reported by the L.A. Times, “only 30% of Napa County’s foreign-born population have become citizens versus 37% in California overall.” This fact speaks to the substantial lack of services available to the immigrant population in the area as well as the specific challenges that immigrant residents of the city of Napa and Napa County face. Approximately 82% of Puertas Abiertas’ clients fall below the self-sufficiency standard. “The Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard measures the minimum income necessary to cover all of a non-elderly (under 65 years old) and non-disabled individual or family’s basic expenses – housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, and taxes – without public or private assistance.” In Napa County, the self-sufficiency standard for a two parent household with two children under the age of five is approximately $85,000/year, for a two parent household with three children under the age of 12 it’s approximately $106,000/year. Many of the families that seek services from Puertas Abiertas make about $20,000/year.
For many immigrant families, low wages are only the tip of the iceberg. As in many communities in the North and South Bay Area, in Napa incredible income disparity trickles down and affects low-income families in a variety of ways. Housing, for example, is a major issue. Low income housing in the Napa valley is practically nonexistent. There is a waiting list for the homeless shelter, and some (including people with jobs) have taken to sleeping in their cars. Recently, a proposal to raise the impact fees on new construction was introduced to the Napa City Council, and Puertas Abiertas has made it a point to meet with council members to convey the importance and scope of the proposal’s potential. As stated by the Napa Valley Register, if the proposal passes, “the fees for single-family homes and condominiums would jump from $2.20 per square foot of new construction to $10.50… while the $3.75 charge for multi-family construction would be brought up to the county’s $5.50 level.” This would mean a significant and much needed change as current developer fees, “fall far short of levels needed to cut into a housing shortage that confronts residents with soaring rents and home prices on the one hand, and small vacancy rates on the other.” As it stands now, and has stood for decades, Napa is accruing approximately $300,000 for affordable housing when it could be more like $1M.
Puertas Abiertas’ stance and role on issues like housing is key. Napa is small, which makes community engagement critical. Many Puertas employees live locally and can help clients make important personal and professional connections. It is common for clients to arrive at the resource center distraught and frustrated, and the ability to advocate for them in a meaningful way is one of Puertas Abiertas’ greatest strengths. In one critical example, a woman came to the center seeking support because her husband had died suddenly leaving her behind with three school age children. Her husband’s death left her with no social security or life insurance to collect, and ultimately no realistic way to make ends meet. Puertas Abiertas’ approach was to reach out to the woman’s husband’s employer and make their case. The result of this correspondence, and Puertas Abiertas’ facilitation of it, came in the form of generous financial compensation for the man’s family. This story is not unique, and Puertas Abiertas understands that part of being in Napa and supporting and respecting its immigrant workers and residents means also being able to convey the realities of daily life to their clients’ employers. It is too easy for immigrants in Napa to feel isolated, like their voices aren’t being heard, and like they don’t have options.
In Napa, California where the demand for legal, economic, education and health services for immigrant workers and residents is great, Puertas Abiertas is working hard on the front lines to make significant, lasting changes.