Working by Day, Homeless at Night
For many of D.C.’s workers, looking for a job does not mean filling out applications or flipping through the want ads. For day laborers, the best you can do is stand on the street corner, and wait.
That is what Eduardo Lopez has been doing for the past 10 years. He is one of about 30 day laborers, or jornaleros, as they’re called in Spanish, huddled on the corner of 15th and P streets on a chilly spring morning, hoping to be picked up for work.
“You can go crazy doing this work, because they don’t always pay you and you get hurt,” he said in Spanish. Lopez usually works one to two days a week, and sometimes not at all. The average pay when you do get work, according to some of the other day laborers on hand, is about $8.00 an hour.
But even if you manage to find available and profitable work, many of the day laborers engage in their repeated search for a livelihood hampered by a second urban challenge: homelessness. Either of these obstacles would frustrate even the most determined person, but the two together make city life for a day laborer especially challenging and often dangerous.
And being homeless for a day laborer is hardly unusual. According to Arnoldo Borja, a substance abuse counselor who does outreach with day laborers for the Mt. Pleasant nonprofit Neighbor’s Consejo, more than 50% of the laborers he meets on the street are homeless.
It is difficult to say exactly how many day laborers there are in the D.C. area. Because many are undocumented immigrants, they fall beneath the radar of government surveys and employer records. Informal day labor sites have flourished amid construction booms in suburban Maryland and Virginia, but there are often more men than jobs. Their desperate need for work and often questionable immigration status make day laborers an easy source of cheap labor, with little recourse if their rights are violated.
“They (day laborers) come with the best of intentions, but when you are alone, away from your family, and you can’t find any work, it gets hard. It’s very easy to fall into drugs and alcohol,” he said.
Eduardo Lopez currently keeps a small room on 14th Street, but he has been homeless twice since coming to D.C., both times because of a lack of work. He also stayed in a homeless shelter in Virginia for about six months when he first arrived in the area. “If you don’t have family, friends, you come without money and no English, you have to live in a shelter,” he explained.
Homeless shelters not only provide housing to many struggling workers, they can also be targets for unscrupulous employers in search of cheap labor. Kerry O’Brien of the D.C. Employment Justice Center has seen numerous cases where contractors recruited day laborers from D.C. shelters, then refused to pay them their full wages. “We had workers traveling out to Hyattsville, Maryland to collect their money. Some were successful, others were not,” said O’Brien. In these cases, it was not immigration status but workers’ vulnerability as homeless people that made them easy targets for exploitation.
O’Brien said 95% of the day laborers that come to the center’s legal clinic each week have problems with nonpayment or underpayment from their employers. “The big problem is enforcement,” she said, “Employers take all sorts of steps to avoid ever being held accountable. They give a false name for their company, they bounce checks, even if you sue them successfully they declare bankruptcy and hide assets under other people’s names.”
Because of their public visibility, day laborers in the D.C. area also stir up controversy and attract the attention of police. In a high profile case in Woodbridge, Virginia last October, two dozen day laborers were arrested for loitering outside of a 7-11. The clash with police drew the attention of county officials, who have proposed building a workforce center in Woodbridge to house the temporary workers while they wait.
“The workers need a place where they can feel safe, where employers and workers have to register so there is accountability, and there’s no public blight so business owners and residents will be happy,” said Jennifer Johnson, a community organizer with the Virginia Justice Center, which advocates for immigrant workers.
But groups like the Virginia Coalition Against Terrorism have targeted the day laborers as evidence of loose borders that leave the country open to terrorist attacks like those suffered on 9/11. At a recent court hearing for the Woodbridge day laborers arrested last October, members of the group held up signs that read, “Illegals please go home.”
Despite the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, the primary concern for most day laborers is still finding a job. Jose Oscar Fuente, a twenty-eight year old day laborer from La Union, El Salvador, was one of the men huddled against a fence at 15th and P streets.
“I don’t have a problem with drugs or alcohol,” he said, “my only addiction is looking for work.”