The Freeport Village Attorney’s Office has begun a criminal investigation into the owners of the Freeport Trailer — a small trailer near Sunrise Highway where day laborers have gathered for about 20 years to find work safely and access public resources — after village officials alleged that the trailer had failed to comply with state public health laws amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Village Attorney Howard Colton said.
The Freeport Trailer was run by the nonprofit, CoLoKi, Inc., and had been under the management of Mirna Cortes-Obers.
As of press time, Cortes-Obers could not be reached for comment.
As the village shut down and removed the trailer from its location on Bennington Avenue in April, the village also cleared out a nearby homeless encampment in May, where many of the day laborers lived in a community.
The area was known as “The Montaña,” Spanish for Mountain, as those living there had built a mountain-like landscape, village officials said.
While the village defends its decision to clear out the area, many day laborer organizations and advocates have criticized the action, saying Mayor Robert Kennedy’s decision to shutdown the trailer and clear the encampment hurt an already vulnerable population.
“For the mayor of Freeport to evict the workers from the trailer and then bulldoze their homes during a global pandemic is an unconscionable human rights violation.” said Lilliam Juarez, executive director of the Workplace Project, a Long Island-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of immigrant workers. “The Village should protect workers, not persecute them.”
Mayor Kennedy referred all statements to Colton, as the matter is currently under criminal investigation.
Colton said that the village had repeatedly found multiple people congregating at the trailer despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders prohibiting mass gatherings. He said that the village had requested the gatherings to end several times before shutting down the trailer.
He added that the village had asked the homeless people at “The Montaña” to leave for years. The village gave the people 72 hours to leave before clearing the area, where village said they found sewage pits and other health hazards.
“There’s not even a question that there was a health risk there,” Colton said. “The way it was, it could have been a hotspot for Covid-19...and it could have created a huge health hazard for the village and for individuals who were staying there.”
Village officials added that they had informed the homeless people there of where to find shelter.
Nadia Marin-Molina, the co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which works to advocate for day laborers’ rights across the U.S., said while the village may claim to have acted in the best interest of the day laborers and homeless people in the area, Kennedy ultimately failed to provide them real help.
“He should be supporting these essential workers rather than displacing them, including: providing masks/PPE, ensuring that they have access to health care and housing, and establishing a new location that will meet the specific needs of Freeport’s day laborers.” Marin-Molina said.
She and other advocates added that the village had gone against the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by clearing the homeless encampment. The CDC states that local municipalities should not clear out these areas, as “clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The CDC also said that the encampments should only be cleared out when there are alternative shelter options for the homeless people, and although the village said that they told the people at “The Montaña” of where they could stay, many said they would not be able to find proper shelter.
“We’ll see what we do and where we go,” said Samuel Garcia, a day laborer who frequented the trailer. “We may have to stay under a tarp overnight for a time.”
“It’s unfair because of the [little] time they give us,” added Ariel Medina, another homeless person at the encampment. “Here we don’t cause any problem at all. We just come to sleep. We don’t interfere with anyone.”
Colton added that along with the criminal investigation over violating the governor’s orders, his office was also looking as to whether or not the Freeport Trailer knowingly aided the construction of the homeless encampment.
He said the matter would either be handled by the Freeport Village Court or by the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office once the investigation concludes.