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Idaho Hunger Coalition: Plight of homeless Peruvian families is greater than a housing dilemma

 Brooke McKenna is co-executive director of The Hunger Coalition
The Hunger Coalition
Brooke McKenna is co-executive director of The Hunger Coalition

The Wood River Valley has a long, rich history with Peruvians. In particular, they share a love for sheepherding. So, it was no surprise to see, post-pandemic, a new stream of Peruvian families to the Sun Valley region. But something is very different this year.

The region's employers need workers to fill a long list of job openings, in all corners of the service industry. And while Peruvians have indeed been anxious to meet that need, their own needs – for housing, hunger and much more – have been left out of the conversation.

“It was unfortunately some short-term thinking. Let’s fill this immediate need with this workforce, but we have no housing options for them,” said Brooke McKenna, co-executive director of The Hunger Coalition which brought the growing crisis to public officials earlier this month. “That’s really scary, shortsighted thinking.”

A week after Ketchum officials repeated the word “crisis” in describing the situation, McKenna visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the emergency, which she says shouldn’t be dismissed as a typical example of the community’s affordable housing dilemma.

“They are seeking a better life for themselves and for their children. And they see an opportunity here to be participants and a really vibrant community that is accepting and open to them.”

Read the full transcript below:

MCKENNA: Thanks, George. I really appreciate the opportunity

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It was last week when we first heard and reported about,  hundreds of new families that have come to the Wood River Valley, many of them in Ketchum or Bellevue or Hailey. And we're beginning to learn about their needs. It's fair to say that the news caught more than a few people off guard, including some public officials. But to be sure, the folks at The Hunger Coalition are not surprised at all. In fact, they're the ones hoping to elevate this conversation. So, let's do just that. Brooke McKenna is here, co-executive director of The Hunger Coalition. Brooke, good morning.

BROOKE MCKENNA: Good morning, George. Thank you so much for having me.

PRENTICE: I was going to ask you how these families came onto your radar, but I think it's clear that the answer to that question is probably in your mission. So, what do you tell a stranger about the mission of the Hunger Coalition?

MCKENNA: Yeah, we are here to take food insecurity off the table, so to speak, in Blaine County. It's a very big mission that we have ending food insecurity. And we know we can't do it alone. So, we our mission is about ending food insecurity and partnership with other organizations to tackle what we call the root causes of food insecurity. And there are many, many root causes. There isn't one thing that brings people to our doors. It's generally many things all at once.

PRENTICE: So here's an opportunity to set the record straight. What should we know about some of these new families that we're hearing about? What's important to know?

MCKENNA: Well, what's important to know, George, is that Blaine County has a very long history with the immigrant population and a very long history with a Peruvian population. We're well known for our Peruvian sheepherders. So we actually have a pretty healthy and vibrant Peruvian and Latino population already here. And what I want to say is that the population that we've seen coming this summer this year is really responding to our lack of employees. We are housing crisis has definitely impacted our workforce and people are struggling to find affordable housing here. But what hasn't been impacted by the pandemic is the desire for people to live in Boone County, in the Wood River Valley. And so we've had a lot of new people move in with resources and they come demanding services. And our service industry has really been decimated by the pandemic. And this year, employers really saw the opportunity to continue to meet those demands and are bringing in a lot of employees. Some of these employees happen to be from out of the country, and they have really taken a hard road to get here. That is the other thing that I really want people to know about these families that we're meeting with, that they are seeking a better life for themselves and for their children. And they see an opportunity here to be participants and a really vibrant community that is accepting and opening up, that are open to them. And we really want to make sure that our community is here to respond to these people who are meeting a really important need of ours, and that is a workforce need.

PRENTICE: So not to wag a finger at employers. But that said, it sounds as if, yes, they have a need and hey, here's a job, but it sounds as if it's only half of the equation, right? I mean, that conversation kind of ends with, “Oh, their need is met. Sure. Oh, golly, you've solved your workforce shortage. There you go.” Well, ok, But this reveals all kinds of need now for these families.

MCKENNA: Absolutely. I really consider it a perfect storm. Right? It's this coming together of this affordable housing crisis that we were already experiencing. And then, unfortunately, some short-term thinking. Right. Let's fill this immediate need with this workforce. But oh, jeez, we have no housing options for them. But great. I got my needs met for the summer. And then these families are just going to have to figure it out for the winter. And that's that's really scary, shortsighted thinking, especially from our perspective at The Hunger Coalition.

PRENTICE: This new information is just kind of coming out. I think it's fair to say that the Ketchum City Council were a bit surprised in getting some detail on this. But what's happening in your office? Talk to me about some of the phone calls that you're getting. Talk to me about what the community is saying or asking about this.

MCKENNA: Absolutely. You know, the nicest thing about being county in the valley is that we really do have a compassionate and generous community. We honestly, ourselves didn't really understand what was going on. We just kept kind of getting busier and busier through the summer. And then in September when school started, it really hit a head with families coming to us and requesting additional resources outside of just some additional food to keep themselves fed for the week. And so we started reaching out to our partners, and it was. Really our social service partners at St Luke's Center for Community Health, the Bladen County School District. We all started being able to say, Wow, we're actually seeing the same thing. How is it that we can respond to this need in a compassionate way? And honestly, we spent September on a bit of a fact finding tour, going around and meeting with partners and then starting to talk to our city and county officials. So it's certainly coming to a surprise to people like our councilmen of the city of Ketchum. But for us on the front line, this isn't a surprise. We've been in it now for a few months. It's really been fantastic to see the response on many ends that people understand that this is an emergency and temporary issue. This is a little bit different. It's separate from our ongoing affordable housing issue. And we can respond or should respond differently.

PRENTICE: Am I correct in assuming do I hear some optimism in your voice?

MCKENNA: You do. You do. You know, again, it's these continuing conversations and then it's this getting out in the media and having this story end out, end up in the public eye and then watching the people filter out and come to us in the past few days and say, I want to help. How can my organization help? How can I help as an individual? Let's get this taken care of. So I am much more hopeful today than I was a couple of weeks ago where it felt so monumental and so overwhelming. So I guess there's been a little bit of a positive turn of events with the City of Ketchum. Council meeting, I will say that.

PRENTICE: Well, indeed, they did respond. They didn't send it to committee, so to speak, as far as an emergency need. And that's not to say that it doesn't require all kinds of analysis and really drilling into this. But I mean, correct me if I'm wrong. I mean, they did respond.

MCKENNA: You know, they responded and they also recognized that they needed to be leaders in this, that they have the resources. They've already been working on this housing initiative with this housing task force that they have established that the Hunger Coalition has been participating in, along with several other community partners. So they really recognized that they were being given an opportunity to lead here in this. And I really respect them, and I really appreciate the way they've responded to this.

PRENTICE: When I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to talk with someone with a hunger coalition. I think one of the first things that jumped to mind is that hunger is not defined solely by food. There are all kinds of hungers. There are greater hungers.

MCKENNA: Oh, absolutely. In fact, that's kind of why I mentioned food insecurity at the beginning. We've really moved away from the term hunger because it's really limited in its scope and people's sort of connection to the word hunger and what they think of when they, you know, the starving child in Africa or whatever those old stories are. But the reality is food insecurity is just one piece of a crisis pie that might be impacting families. And for us, we see ourselves as very much frontline because food access is actually one of the easiest forms of support for people to get to. We're able to invite them in, give them some immediate food, or send them home with some nourishment that actually takes a bit of stress off their life. And that's really what I want people to understand as well, is that food insecurity. Is. Again, it's just a part of what's going on in people's lives. But the solution of having an immediate meal or food is such a space of comfort and relaxation. And once we get to that place with people where they are relaxed and they've had this immediate need served and they know that we're here to support them, that's when we really hear more about what's going on in their lives and the suite of resources they might be able to access beyond food to help them see more of a thriving experience for their families.

PRENTICE: It's not as if we ever exit a political season. That said, there is there is an election coming up in a couple of weeks, and there are those who like to use almost anything as a political stick. And can I also assume that your organization and your colleagues are ready to set the record straight and diffuse the political nature of this?

MCKENNA: I wish I had the power to do so. But, you know…..

PRENTICE: But you can engage, right? I mean, here's an opportunity. It is like, okay, let's take the oxygen out of that argument.

MCKENNA: Without a doubt. And so that is our that's our responsibility as advocates here, is to attempt to set the record straight and to remind everyone that Idaho is a state of contradictions. We were very pro-business, we're very pro capitalism, we're very pro free market. But we don't want to be honest with ourselves that there are some dirty things that have to potentially have to go on in order to support those systems. And one of those ugly things is filling a workforce with people who may or may not have crossed legally to get here, but they're still humans. And that's the most important part of all of this, is regardless what is bringing them here, we need to recognize that these these are human beings and there are. Reasons why they are coming here. Outside of the usual shtick. And I got to say, George. One of those tropes that I would really like to see and is that immigrants are coming here to steal our jobs. Only the bad element is coming. They're coming here and they're making things worse. And that is just not true. And if we sit down and we take a look at the history in Idaho and our long history with migrant farm workers and here in Bladen County with immigrants who come and work in our construction industry, these are these are families who end up really contributing to our economy and the vibrancy of our communities. And so much bigger than all of those ugly stories that we end up hearing or these soundbites that we hear, this constant concept of close the borders. Close the borders, close the borders. Well, we saw what happened during the pandemic when everything shut down, our workforce demanded higher paying better jobs. That means all those low paying, low skilled jobs have remained empty for the large part. And so our businesses are turning around and seeking those willing to work those low wage, low skilled jobs. I just see it as a vicious cycle, George, And it's been a vicious cycle in Idaho for four decades, and I wish I could demand it to stop. But all I can do is just keep talking about the humanity of these people. One of the great conversations I had this week was with an employer who has been doing their best to try to house the workforce that they've seen move into the valley this summer. And this this employer was saying, you know, I'm working hard because I, I want to see these people. I want to see their children thrive and start their own businesses here and the future that we're going to be able to see ahead of us if we actually just accept that these are an important these people, these families are important part of our workforce. They're like a critical piece of our Bladen County resort pie that we can't ignore.

PRENTICE: Brooke McKenna is co-executive director of The Hunger Coalition. To you and your colleagues, thank you for what you do; and for this morning, thanks for giving us some time.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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