Immigrants say a 'Jesus-centered' chicken factory is forcing them into homelessness

Ana Monter's family brought her to the United States when she was a child, like many other immigrants chasing the American dream. But they were so poor as she was growing up that she started working in a Chatham County chicken factory at age 15 to help support her family.

She dropped out of school to work full-time and eventually saved up enough money to start a family and buy a mobile home of her own, just yards away from the factory in Siler City.

Now, she's terrified the new owners of that factory — which has received millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives to re-open the plant — are about to condemn her and her children to homelessness.

The company that bought the chicken processing plant in 2016, Mountaire Farms, also recently bought the trailer park where Monter lives. The new owners plan to pave it over as they expand their operations. The expansion means more jobs for people in the area, which was devastated economically when the plant closed down in 2011.

But it also means Monter and around 100 of her neighbors, including many Spanish-speaking immigrants, are facing eviction.

"How do you tell your children we're going to lose everything we have?" Monter asked Chatham County leaders at a recent public hearing, weeping as she implored them to help. For now, the company has told the neighbors to be out by May 7.

But they're fighting for more time — and more financial help — to find a new place to live. As of Friday morning, negotiations between Mountaire and the neighbors were ongoing.

The neighbors have also asked officials in Chatham County and Siler City to help them out. The two local governments gave Mountaire a combined $2.3 million in tax breaks and other incentives.

Construction of the Mountaire Farms processing plant in Siler City, N.C. The plant has bought the Johnson’s Mobile Home Park next door and plans to expand its operations. Those living in the mobile home park have been given eviction notices. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The state also gave Mountaire $1.6 million.

That state money has since been returned as officials seek an even larger sum, due to the larger number of jobs they're promising to create. However, the grant remains part of an ethics complaint filed against N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County near Charlotte.

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A company Moore co-owns bought the then-abandoned factory in 2013 and sold it to Mountaire in 2016 for nearly five times as much as the 2013 price.

A Washington-based watchdog group, the Campaign for Accountability, said there should be an investigation into whether Moore misused his political power to get that grant approved, and to pressure state regulators to go easy on pollution violations on the site.

Moore has denied doing anything wrong.

What the neighbors want

Many of the factory's neighbors came to a recent Chatham County Commissioners meeting to ask for help. So did their advocates, who include the Chatham County Hispanic Liaison nonprofit as well as former county commissioner Betty Wilson.

Two Mountaire representatives came to the meeting, and the commissioners invited them to speak publicly, too. They declined.

Mark Reif, Mountaire's community relations manager, also declined to be interviewed after the meeting. He later emailed a press release that said the company wants "to arrive at an amicable solution for all parties."

Neighbors are asking for financial compensation, since many of them spent thousands of dollars buying and fixing up their mobile homes that they say are now too old to be accepted at any other local mobile home park.

Diana Hales, the chairwoman of the Chatham County Commissioners, called the ongoing debate unacceptable.

"We will definitely work to achieve relief for these families here," she said, noting that the county has some money for emergency housing.

The 28 families involved say they're asking for less than $100,000 in total — and that since Mountaire has received millions of dollars in tax breaks and other publicly funded incentives to re-open the Siler City plant, the company should be able to afford that.

Mirian Herrera, a senior at Jordan-Matthews High School, was going to leave the mobile home park soon anyway to head off to Guilford College in the fall. But she's worried about what will happen to her sister and her mother, especially since her father has passed away.

"We hope that you will work with them to help us out," she told the county leaders.

Mountaire says that after buying the mobile home park it gave the residents five months of rent-free living. Residents said rent for the lots was $210 a month, so that comes out to $1,500 per mobile home – which sometimes housed one family, or multiple families.

As part of the ongoing negotiations, Mountaire has also offered to extend the eviction date until July, giving the families a few more months to find a new home, but it's unclear if that will be part of the final agreement.

'Some dignity and a roof over their heads'

With the current eviction date of May 7 looming on the horizon, some families have already left the park but others are sticking it out, in large part because they say they can't afford to move.

Natalia Lopez is still there. She's a retiree who has lived in Siler City more than 25 years and spent most of that time working at the chicken plant along with her husband, Jose Salvador Lopez Rojas.

Natalia Lopez, age 72, prepares lunch in the kitchen of her home at Johnson’s Mobile Home Park in Siler City, N.C. Lopez and her husband have lived here for more than 25 years. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Like Monter, the couple are scared they're about to become homeless. They're in their 70s, with no income, and Jose has prostate cancer.

"The moment we have to leave our trailer, we're going to be crying," Jose said.

"Even though they don't have an obligation, they should do the right thing," Natalia said. "... They should think about how this might leave us on the streets."

Many of the neighbors attend nearby St. Julia Catholic Church. Some of them and their supporters have accused Mountaire, a self-described "Jesus-centered company," of not following through on its stated values.

"Mountaire Farms has not only failed to help the homeless, it has created homelessness," said Jeffrey Starkweather, a longtime Chatham County activist.

Andrea Cruz Altunar, who lives in the mobile home park with her husband and their four children, is 36 and has lived in the U.S. since she was a young adult.

The residents of Johnson’s Mobile Home Park in Siler City, N.C. have been given eviction notices after Mountaire Farms purchased the property for expansion of its new plant under construction next door. Johnson’s is a collection of older mobile homes. Many residents have purchased their homes, and have spent money on renovations. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

She said she's sad that she and her husband are about to lose the $8,000 they spent buying and repairing their trailer three years ago, and she's angry at the way Mountaire and the former owner of the mobile home park have treated them.

"The company never met with us," she said. "We found out through the internet they bought it. The previous owner, he never told us anything."

At the public hearing, the county commissioners wondered aloud about Mountaire's county-funded tax incentives.

"I do have a question about whether or not the tax incentive — property tax deal — will include the (mobile home park) property," Commissioner Jim Crawford said. "And I'm going to ask that staff look into that question. "

The commissioners also scolded the company for not being a better neighbor during this expansion process.

"Give these people an opportunity to walk away from this travesty with some dignity and a roof over their heads," Commissioner Karen Howard told the company's representatives after they declined to speak.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

History of the plant

The chicken processing factory owned by Mountaire isn't the only chicken plant in Chatham County, but it's the largest. When it shut down in 2011 it made a huge dent in the local economy, and officials have been eager to recreate the jobs it once provided. Several companies have tried to get the plant back up and running since 2011, eyeing the promise of tax breaks and other incentives. The latest is Mountaire Farms, which promised to create 700 jobs in 2016 in exchange for nearly $4 million in potential incentives. The company now says it might create 1,300 jobs, bringing the employment levels back to what they were when the Great Recession hit. Here's a timeline of the plant's history.

1960: The chicken plant is built on the outskirts of Siler City. Live chickens are shipped in, and supermarket-ready cuts of meat are sent out.

2000: National KKK leader David Duke holds a rally in Siler City after a local white supremacist asked him to come protest the small town's growing Hispanic population. Many of the immigrants came to find jobs at the local chicken plants, including the former Townsend's plant that Mountaire bought in 2016.

2010: Townsend's Inc. files for bankruptcy and the Siler City plant is bought by a Ukrainian billionaire, Oleg Bakhmatyuk, using a shell company called Omtron.

2011: Omtron shuts down the plant and lays off its nearly 1,200 employees.

2013: A company co-owned by NC House Speaker Tim Moore buys the plant for $85,000.

2014: Carolina Premium Foods attempts to buy the plant from Moore's company, and is given a $750,000 grant paid for by state taxpayers, but the deal falls through.

2016: Mountaire Farms buys the plant from Moore's company for $550,000. A state agency later awards Mountaire Farms $1.6 million in incentives from state taxpayers, and the Siler City and Chatham County governments add $2.3 million.

2017: Mountaire Farms buys the mobile home park next door as part of its expansion plans.