By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH
He stands outside, looking lost, confused and a little scared. Dressed in work shoes, blue jeans and a black “Soul Rebel” t-shirt, German proffers his TB screening paperwork, trying to get inside the gates of the Dolores Street Community Services shelter on in the southeast Mission.
German is a day laborer from Tlaxcala, Mexico, and it is his first night here in the shelter.
Like ripples in a pond far from an earthquake, the impact of the recent financial crisis has shaken foundations from Wall Street to Mission Street. As construction and housing starts decline, day laborers are finding it more and more difficult to find employment.
“Before, there weren’t as many people here, and it was easy to find work,” German says in Spanish, referring to the day laborer population, “but there are much more of us now, many travel from Los Angeles to find jobs.”
Indeed, while housing construction starts in the Bay Area are down 38.5 percent from 2007, in Los Angeles they have decreased 54 percent.
Erika Sarmiento, a caseworker for Dolores Street Community Services, comments that she sees a lot of new faces in the shelters nowadays.
German, who has spent a total of 17 years in the United States, is finding it increasingly difficult to send money to his wife and two daughters in Mexico. Like many other migrant workers, less available work means he is forced to sacrifice comforts—for him, that means housing.
“I can’t afford an apartment right now,” he says. Asked what he will do if he cannot get into the shelter tonight, his answer is brief but to the point.
“La calle.” The street.
Some newer arrivals remain optimistic. Mario, who arrived from Mexico a month and a half ago, only works one or two days a week, but still, life is easier here than back home.
“For those who live in a house, the situation is bad right now,” he shrugs, “but for those on the street, no. I don’t have to pay for a house, or a car, or gas. I get around on foot.”
Like German, he is also supporting a wife and two children, and would like to send more than the $100-150 a week he currently provides.
Jose Melendez, the monitor of the shelter, explains in broken English that he sees new arrivals every night. If no beds are available, an increasingly common predicament after the closing of two city shelters in the past year and a half, clients are sent to another one of the city’s eight remaining locations, or to 150 Otis Street, which serves as housing for overflow cases.
Inside the shelter, tired men sit and trade stories and cigarettes while sipping from cans of Coke. Faded chalk drawings on the concrete floor reveal the building’s daytime role as a day-care center. In the bathroom, men perform their nightly routines, washing their faces, brushing their teeth. Participants in a city licensing program attend a class upstairs on elevator mechanics and repair. Already at nine o’clock, half a dozen men are asleep in their gunmetal gray bunks.
David is not one of those. He puts down the fruit he is juggling and pulls out his teddy bear, Richard, and grabs the earplugs he uses to help him sleep. David works a part-time as a barback at Bucca di Beppo five nights a week, and attends English as a Second Language classes at the Community College of San Francisco during the day. He laments his old life in Los Angeles that he left five months ago.
“I lived on my own in Los Angeles. I’ve never seen this before…people with drugs, mental problems,” he says, referring to some of his companions in the shelter system. David moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles searching for better work to support his mother and siblings in Honduras.
He’s frustrated with life in the United States. “You need to find two or three jobs to survive,” he says. “There’s no life, just work.”
German sits in the front lobby of the shelter, preparing to be processed into the system.
German, at least, has found his bed for tonight.