PLAINFIELD, New Jersey (CNN) — Enter the “Devil’s Cave” by pulling aside the wooden grate beneath the porch of the abandoned suburban New Jersey home. Crawl inside to see the filthy, mismatched blankets and the garbage and empty soda and alcohol bottles strewn about. Catch your breath against the smell.
Immigrants show the small space beneath a New Jersey porch they called home for several months.
In a better time, the 8-by-12-foot cubby hole with the four-foot ceiling might have been the pride of an 8-year-old, a place to share with closest friends, a secret hideout from the neighborhood bullies.
For a group of Latin American men, the “Devil’s Cave” was home for several months as they tried to find work in tough economic times. In it, they shared their misfortune and propped up one another’s dignity.
“I am a victim of the economic crisis,” said Demisio Flores, 44, of El Salvador. “I am not homeless, because if I could get a job I would pay my rent and continue sending money to my family.”
Flores, a former member of the Salvadoran military, was supporting a wife, a daughter and three grandchildren in El Salvador with money he earned at two jobs, one at a beverage packing company. But the men he shared the Devil’s Cave with — as many as 10 at some times — became a new family.
“We were like brothers,” he said of those with whom he camped beneath the porch. “Whoever got something was for everybody and everybody was getting something for whoever.”
The nation’s economic downturn has hit northern New Jersey hard. Unemployment jumped in the state to 7.1 percent in December, according to federal statistics.
Plainfield, a city of just over 47,000 where minorities are the majority — 62 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic — was faring even worse. The city’s jobless rate was 7.9 percent in November, an increase of 2.8 percentage points from a year earlier.
Downtown Plainfield, walking distance from the space below the porch, shows the strains of recession. Stores try to lure customers with sales, others have shut down already or are preparing to do so.
With New Jersey struggling, the low-wage jobs that sustained the men disappeared.
Flores said of 300 people who worked with him, only 10 kept jobs when one company cut back four months ago. With the jobs gone, so was prosperity.
“My life was happy. I used to get a home with food and heat… pay my rent and send some money to my family in El Salvador,” he said.
As work dried up, the men joined other immigrants on Plainfield’s street corners, hoping to be chosen for day work. But they said they were lucky to get one day of work a month, not even near enough to cover rent on the small rooms they used to occupy.
Shelter became a dire need. Israel Rodriguez Melendez, a Salvadoran who has spent six years in the U.S., spotted the cubby hole beneath the porch. He and a friend opened the abandoned house above and got blankets, towels and clothes for him and others in the cave.
Other basics were more difficult to come by.
“Some times we went to garbage Dumpsters looking for food,” Rodriguez, 42, said.
Deliverance from the Devil’s Cave came at the holidays.
“In December, we were planning a Christmas party,” said Carmen Salavarrieta, an activist in the Hispanic community. “In the list people that wanted to attend they were putting their names, some of them wrote ‘I live in the Devil’s Cave,’ and I asked myself, ‘What is this?’ and then they explained to me.”
Salavarrieta is a member of El Centro Hispanoamericano, a nonprofit group that provides emergency, immigration and educational services to Latinos in northern New Jersey. Cobbling together support from churches, businesses and other members of the community, she found temporary quarters for the men.
“I came to take them out of the cave and put them in a shelter. They were allowed to stay there only for three days. So we gave them clean clothes, food and they looked like honorable people. But the three days were over and I did not know what to do, I can not let them out in the street again,” she said.
She was able to put some of the men in a small apartment she owned. Others found places with friends. Plainfield’s mayor even chipped in, Salavarrieta said, footing the bill for some hotel rooms.
The men couldn’t be more grateful.
“Now we live like kings, we have hot water, we get to eat and we have a place to sleep and we can get to change our clothes,” Rodriguez said.
Flores showed off a new haircut. A friend had shorn the tangled, dirty mat that was part of his days below the porch.
“With this haircut I look nice,” he said. “And I am very grateful to the community that is helping us so much.”