D.C. Council Member Pushes Training Center
Friday, March 2, 2007
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. has asked businesses at a Northeast Washington shopping center to help establish a multicultural training center to ease growing tension between neighbors and day laborers who congregate there.
In a letter last week to officials of Home Depot, Giant and Brentwood RI LL, developer of Rhode Island Plaza, Thomas said the needs of the day laborers, contractors and homeowners who frequent the shopping center are of "paramount concern." He wants the business owners to join a public-private partnership to permit the city to place a central facility on the site.
"The issue is broader than people standing at Home Depot," said Thomas (D-Ward 5). "We want to connect contractors, training, jobs and worker-readiness programs open to the overall community."
Thomas's proposal would immediately provide a trailer and portable toilets on the property, where the majority-Latino laborers seek day jobs with contractors and shoppers looking for skilled workers.
Thomas said he hopes to eventually land a publicly financed center for the day laborers and other job-seekers. He has asked the D.C. Department of Employment Services to explore how the program could work.
Providing job training, shelter and bathrooms would reduce people's complaints about public urination, loitering and intimidation by the workers, Thomas said.
"That site is so important because it became a point of congregation that was uncontrolled and a menace in the community," Thomas said in an interview. "We need to manage it with all the input from the property owners so we can have a long-term plan for growth and safety at the site."
Ron DeFeo, a spokesman for Home Depot, said company officials are engaged in "ongoing dialogue" with Thomas. The store has a "non-solicitation" policy designed to keep people from loitering, he said.
"For us, this is only an issue at a small percentage of our stores," DeFeo said. "The perception is that it's a national issue, but it's not. We have shown in the past that we will gladly meet with groups and work with local governments to come up with solutions."
In Glendale, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, for example, city officials opened a center across the street from a Home Depot in 1997. The store chipped in $20,000 worth of materials, but the city operates it through a nonprofit organization with general revenue funds, a spokesman said.
The District is not the only area jurisdiction dealing with problems caused by day laborers loitering near places where contractors and residents seek cheap labor.
Montgomery County officials recently approved opening a county-funded day labor center near Gaithersburg, after residents protested a site in that city. The other two county centers are in Silver Spring and Wheaton. In Fairfax County, a center opened in Herndon despite a lawsuit to block it.
Vicky Leonard-Chambers, a Ward 5 activist who shops at Rhode Island Plaza, said the nonprofit group she heads hired day laborers to help plant trees in the community. She favors establishing the center.
"It's a tough situation because they want employment, yet it's difficult when they're sitting up at Home Depot," she said. "It can be intimidating. It's not an easy situation to resolve."