San Mateo’s Worker Resource Center will remain near the heart of downtown for at least another year and a half after the City Council approved a contract to support the nonprofit-run service for day laborers.
Prompted in part by concerns from a group of residents in the Central neighborhood, city officials took a closer look at its agreement with the Samaritan House to run the center built on a city-owned lot that is slated for eventual redevelopment.
The council unanimously approved at a meeting last week continuing its contract to spend nearly $262,500 over the next year and a half to support the facility that connects day laborers with employers.
“I think the extension is a good thing, I think the Worker Resource Center is still needed,” Councilman David Lim said after the meeting. “I think people who talk about it not being needed don’t remember how bad it was before we had it there. And just as a point of compassion, we as a city are compassionate and we want to do things to help our neighbors. It’s good to offer these services and resources to members of our community.”
Forming the center was initially sparked by complaints in the late 1990s and early 2000s over the hundreds of workers who would congregate on the streets between downtown and Highway 101. Common reports included public urination, litter, trespassing and traffic safety issues. With minimal oversight, day laborers were frequently taken advantage of with little recourse when some employers would refuse to pay after work was completed. So after citizens and the city studied options, the Worker Resource Center was opened in 2003 at the corner of Fifth and Railroad avenues.
Dozens of workers, often San Mateo residents with experience in construction or landscaping, gather at the center in search of employment. Yet some opt to remain on the streets and have elicited complaints from neighbors as well as inquires as to whether it was worth city funds to keep the center afloat.
Todd Murtha, a more than 12-year Central neighborhood resident, said the center was created to help alleviate the problems and questioned why the city would continue to pay as fewer and fewer workers now use the facility.
“The neighborhood was viewed as a primary beneficiary of the Worker Resource Center, we were one of the reasons it was created,” Murtha said during the meeting. “While we feel it’s appropriate to help these individuals, … it’s unfair the impacts of providing that help is falling on just one neighborhood.”
Samaritan House representatives noted some of the complaints stem from the homeless population downtown. The Community Relations Commission discussed the contract in August and also recommended San Mateo continues to provide its land as well as financial support to keep the center open.
Reyna Sandoval, who recently came on board to manage the center, said they’re striving to improve the facility, reinstate English classes and connect with workers on the street in an attempt to relocate them indoors.
“These workers really need this center. For most of them, this is pretty much all they have; this is their livelihood, their sense of community and we do protect them, we make sure their best interest is taken into account,” Sandoval said.
Several residents spoke at the meeting with varying viewpoints. Josh Hugg, a member of the Sustainability Commission and 16-year resident of the neighborhood, said there’s been a vast improvement since the center opened as fewer workers line the streets and many are receiving care. James Wayne, another longtime Central neighborhood resident, said he’s sympathetic but feels it’s a waste of money as attendance has declined.
Regardless of the arguments, the city will have to consider whether to shift the center elsewhere in the near future.
As part of the council’s action, it directed the Community Relations Commission to work on considering future options for relocating the center as the current site was purchased with former redevelopment agency funds and could be turned into housing.
Lim said he would support any efforts to find a new location and, during the meeting, said he tended to side with Carlos Chavez’s sentiment.
Chavez, a retired San Francisco County employee who now volunteers at the center, said he and other members of his congregation bring food and moral support. The center is more than a worthwhile expense, Chavez said.
“This is a human issue. It’s not a statistic, it’s not economics. These are humans, they have families, they have children,” Chavez said to the council. “I appeal to your human kindness, leave aside the economics and the politics, just look at another human being.”
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