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by Ketaki Gokhale

U.S. Economy Will Get Worse, Says Bernanke

(PNS) -- For someone who's been living under the awnings of a church for the past month, Angel Gonzalez, a day laborer from Mexico, looks amazingly dapper. On most mornings, a man lets him into the church to take a shower, and then he heads over to the Street Level Health Project office on a gritty block of International Boulevard for a steaming cup of coffee and a bowl of hot food.

Hunger and homelessness among day laborers have always been cyclical in nature, says Meghan Woods, a case manager for the Oakland Street Level Project, a nonprofit agency that provides food and medical care for day laborers. But this winter, the number, and the desperation, of the homeless has exceeded expectations. Many speculate that it is a harbinger of hard times to come. "One family drove all the way from Seattle to see us, and we've seen lots of workers who live on the railroad tracks," Woods notes.

Head 25 miles northwest to the smaller city of San Rafael, and the situation is much the same. The St. Vincent de Paul Society runs a soup kitchen there, just a few miles away from the Canal district, where 70 percent of the population is Latino and most work on the day labor market. More day laborers and "working poor" are showing up, which Steve Boyer -- the organization's executive director -- attributes to the recent downturn in the housing market. "If the economy continues to head down this path, we'll continue to find more and more people soming in," Boyer predicts.

According to data from the Construction Industry Research Board, the number of building permits issued in California this past November was down 45 percent from the same period the previous year. Immigrant day laborers, whose very survival depends on the availability of construction and landscaping work, were hit first and hit the hardest by the decline in housing.

Laura Perez, executive director of the Street Level Project, thinks that the threat of deportation may also have a role to play in the uptick of homelessness. "Guys disappeared last year from the corners," she says, referring to the aggressive U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids conducted throughout 2007. The threat of raids gradually faded in Oakland, but many immigrant day laborers discovered they'd lost the nerve to go back on the streets looking for work.

For Angel Gonzalez, this winter marks the second time in his nearly 20 years in the U.S. that he's been homeless. The first time was the previous Christmas, in 2006. "We're good guys," he says. "We stay away from drugs, drinking, and we've been working hard for a long time. But now it's become very hard to find work on the corners."

He and his friends have been waiting at their usual corner in Oakland -- 29th Avenue and International Boulevard -- from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, hoping for work since the start of the new year. Not one job has come his way. "The corners are very crowded," Gonzalez observes. "I've been doing this work since 1989, and it wasn't this way before."

Another pressure is the rising cost of rental housing. Jose Ventura, a day laborer from Mexico, says he was forced to share his one-bedroom apartment with two others, and that he knows others who live six men to a one bedroom apartment.

This month, Ventura lost his apartment because he couldn't meet his $100 rent. Last year, around this same time, he also spent two months on the streets. The past two years, Ventura says, have been the worst of the eight years he has lived in the U.S.

By December last year, Gonzalez was broke. His landlord kicked him out of his apartment when he failed to make rent. Many of his friends found themselves in the same position at the time, so they pooled their money together to rent a storage space in which they could keep their meager belongings, and moved temporarily to the streets.

"Me and my friends, we each pitched in $10 for one month's storage," he says. "Now we are all living by the church, and we have one month to find work and get a new place, or else they'll throw out all our things."

"It is the American Dream!" he says, with a loud guffaw.

Gonzalez estimates that 200 young Mexican laborers started living on the side streets of Oakland's Foothill Boulevard in January. They've been keeping a low profile during the day, he says, because of the lack of work, but they come out of the shadows at night.

Many homeless workers have taken to arming themselves at night, with knives and screwdrivers to guard against muggers, Gonzalez said.

Shelters are not an option because many of them charge $2 to 3 a night, says Maria Vigil, a staffer at Street Level. It's money that many don't have or can't afford to spend.

For nourishment, there are few options for Oakland's homeless day laborers. Around 50 men, more than ever before, have been coming by Street Level each day in search of food. "It's the only place to get food," says Alfredo Flores, a Mexican day laborer who has been homeless these past two months, for the first time in his six years in the U.S.

The men say Street Level is attractive because it's walking distance from the places they sleep at night (none of them own cars), and it provides Mexican food and information in Spanish.

Local churches also dole out food to homeless day laborers, but many prefer to go to secular organizations. "The churches, they always want to talk to us about religion," Gonzalez says with a chuckle. "I am Catholic, but I am not religious. The only time in my life I have gone to church is for sleeping."

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Albion Monitor   January 10, 2008   (

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