Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sacramento homeless and the risks of Day Labor, Part I

The entrance to Loaves & Fishes' Friendship Park as seen from the north side of the North C St. cul-de-sac that abutts 12th Street.
As I’ve written frequently previously, contrary to the stereotype, a great great many homeless people are scrappy. They are not work avoidant; they are work (and pay!) accepting and seeking.

This optimism that ‘something can be made to happen,’ to break the waves of despondency, is what is most admirable (and constantly refreshing!) about those struggling in Homeless World Sacramento. It’s sparkling hope in a tightly bounded universe that too much tries to crush hope.

The lure of ‘escape’ from the circumstance of homelessness, for this very big subset of Sacramento homeless people, is to find meaning and happiness that isn’t available ‘out here.’1 The effort to find a more-normal life begins by sparking opportunities to make things different than just spinning around the turnstile of always just subsisting (and for many, doing the usual drinking or drugs) in Homeless World.

Thus, the energy and optimism that comes from seeking and offering themselves for work (or whatever involves engaging oneself in a productive task, though, for those of us with no retirement or disability income, getting PAID to do something is best. That is, we need some money.) is a break in the waves.

For a long time, you could see, from the Downtown-bound Blue Line [coming from Watt-I80] of the Light Rail, a sign over the entrance of Friendship Park, advertising Day Labor at Loaves & Fishes. The program, called “Daily Bread,” still up at the L&F website -- on this webpage,, it reads “Daily Bread Day Labor: A day labor referral service. Participants work in a wide range of jobs including yard work, construction, and moving. (916-832-5510)” -- was one way many homeless guys got temporary jobs.

The sign is down that was over Friendship Park. I’ve been told that a circumstance developed such that the Powers That Be at Loaves & Fishes got skittish about their legal liability [something I’ll get to in Part II of this series], such that the sign was pulled down, but the program was not entirely ended.

But there are risks (in addition to opportunities) to be found for homeless people jonesing for quick work and pay. While people from the general public are out there to help the homeless by using homeless labor in a mutually beneficial way, others prey on the homeless. And no one intercedes when bad things happen to good (homeless) people.

Forgive those who trespass against us

The way that that Daily Bread worked in Friendship Park, when it was fully active up until about six months ago, was this: At about 7:30am, homeless guys [and a rare gal] would begin lining up at a chosen spot, not far from the Information kiosk. A Green Hat [that is, a Park employee] would have the guys in the line draw a number out of a hat, which would, supposedly, determine the order that the guys would be chosen for any job-calls that came in. [So far as I can determine from all the fellows I’ve spoken to about this, all the jobs we are talking about here are under-the-table, and often, if not usually, pay less than minimum wage. Rare fully-legitimate jobs for homeless people, with Foodlink being the prominent employment example, went through other Loaves & Fishes’ sources, outside Daily Bread, to get homeless employees.]

When job calls came in, the caller would sometimes request certain homeless people [good workers he knew, e.g.] for the job task he had. Oftentimes, a requested person would not be someone on the ‘list’ that was created, nonetheless, the Green Hat would try to find [usually using the Park intercom] the requested homeless person if he was in the Park, somewhere.

Other times, it was widely believed, if a good job was called in to Park personnel, a Green Hat who was most centrally involved with Daily Bread Day Labor would funnel the job to homeless people he was friendly with. Indeed, it is widely believed that the number-draw list was pretty much always disregarded when good jobs (that paid well or were easy) came in, which were funneled to one particular Green Hat’s pals. Let me be clear that I believe the process of giving homeless guys day-jobs was corrupted: Not only were the jobs known to be under-the-table and, many, paying less than minimum wage, instances where homeless people were cheated were not followed-up on and the system of fair opportunity to get a day job was a sham. Basically, Loaves & Fishes affixed its Imprimatur to Daily Bread and, in its usual fully-careless way, let things fester and stink.

Jobs that came in that came from callers who were known to have serious problems, or who weren’t going to pay much, or had jobs that involved particularly difficult physical work, were given to homeless men who didn’t have an “in” with the Green Hats.

Like a frog in water. Such are the daze or our lives.
In Part 2 of this series, I will write up what I’ve been told of one-day- and short-term- jobs homeless people got from Daily Bread; from citizens approaching homeless people, usually from their cars; and some other off-the-radar regular sources. Some of the jobs are great; others barbaric.

1 NOT that being homeless is constant anguish. It’s very much not, for most of us. It’s more of a slow death by nicks and a slow accumulation of shame, something one can get all-too-acclimated with, and then wake up one day and find that you’re withering away, past saving. It’s like the ‘frog in a beaker of water’ story: Put a frog in a pot of cold water, and slowly bring the water to a boil. The frog, though capable of hopping right out, is only slowly discomfited. It stays put and proceeds to boil to death.

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