About 20 years ago, San Mateo officials were struggling with a question seemingly exigent for many, but difficult to answer — what to do with the scores of men waiting for work on the streets of the city’s main gateway from Highway 101?
For years, the men would gather along the busy Third and Fourth avenues and sometimes rush into traffic as contractors slowed looking for casual hires to work a day or perhaps more. Other drivers in the confluence of Third Avenue after South Humboldt would swerve to avoid the emerging obstacles. Most times the numbers were around 60, but also reached at least 200. Safety was an issue.
There were other issues. Some who got work were exploited because of their immigration status and didn’t get paid. Some residents along the Third and Fourth avenue corridor complained about loitering, public drinking, urination and occasional verbal harassment of women.
A semi-formal worker center outside of the natural gathering location was tried. The city considered working with immigration officials to crack down on contractors who hired the workers. The city tried passing an ordinance forbidding the solicitation of work from a moving vehicle. None of these options worked. Some would not be attempted today.
The city hired a liaison to work with the men to let them know city policies and codes when it comes to litter and other issues. The worker resource center was opened at Fifth and Railroad avenues in a former temporary fire station structure. There, the men could find work in an organized and dignified way without fear of exploitation. There, they could take classes if they could not find work. There, they could access medical services from a mobile clinic service.
Established in a temporary facility, the center’s days were numbered when it began. Now, there is development in the works on the city-owned property that aims to provide workforce housing and parking — two long-identified needs. The city is also at a juncture in which its council is trying to determine the future of the worker resource center and whether it should have a place in the new development, moved elsewhere, temporarily closed or shut down permanently.
The center works and should remain. It creates a dignified and organized place for the men to find work, eliminates the chances of them getting ripped off by unscrupulous contractors and keeps them off the street and away from neighbors who may have concerns. I am not convinced the center is the cause of any other problem in the area. The other problems in the area are just that, the other problems in the area. However, one issue is that there seems to be a split in that some workers are still congregating on the streets and others are using the center. There should be some effort to ensure that those men looking for work on the street find their way to the center. But to be frank, anyone is allowed to gather on sidewalks and, if the owner if OK with it, private property.
While development of the site means there will be a disruption, there should either be a spot at the new development or somewhere extremely close to where it is now because it has to be near the natural gathering spot. Another reason to keep it close is that finding a new location is always difficult since there is always concern about impact. The city might even spend some time exploring the possibility of adding to the center and making it a Latino Cultural and Worker Resource Center since gathering spots for that segment of the community are hard to find and will only be increasingly needed. Partnerships could be explored to highlight the Latino community and its contributions to the city.
Rather than looking at the center as a burden, it should be looked at as an opportunity to assist a sometimes exploited population, build a bridge between Latino residents and the city and create an overall sense of community.
There are some who might suggest that the city should do nothing because of the men’s immigration status. That doesn’t make any sense. The men are here not because of a city policy, but rather because of our nation’s failed immigration laws. The numbers on the streets are low right now but they ebb and flow with the political and economic situations here and in nations to our south. It would be our own failure to abandon this proven solution only to see the issues we faced 20 years ago arise once again because we as a community simply stopped trying.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Jon @jonmays.