One man walked several miles in the dark and, arriving at 5 a.m., stood in the harsh light shining all night outside the office in Dumfries. Another man pulled into the driveway in a battered pickup and drank coffee. A 22-year-old with three children was dropped off by his mother, who packed his lunch with his name written on the bag.
They came looking for day labor -- the last stop in the work force above unemployment -- and on this day they got lucky. There were more jobs than people for the two dozen men who showed up at the American Labor Force Co., off Route 1 in Prince William County.
That doesn't happen very often these days. As the economy continues to contract, the slowing of building projects has drastically curtailed the day labor market, just as more and more people are looking for work. Day labor companies throughout the Washington area are reporting a 30 to 60 percent decline in business from last year.
In the process, the symbiosis between construction companies and the homeless in the metropolitan area has largely come apart, according to labor companies and shelter directors.
"It's very dead," said American Labor owner Jesse Burgess, who employed 1,300 people last year and has seen business drop 60 percent this year. "We're kind of a luxury item. We do the dirty work that the superintendents don't want to do. Now people are doing everything by themselves. Not much to look forward to in the winter."
The men who came last week to the company's waiting room in an unheated, unfinished converted garage, showed up to work for $5 an hour -- before taxes -- cleaning and doing other grunt work at construction sites throughout Northern Virginia. Burgess charges construction companies and other businesses $9.50 an hour per person.
Builders say laid-off carpenters are now willing to sweep out newly built houses just to have a job. In better times, some of those jobs went to homeless people living in shelters who would work cheap and gain a chance to grab the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
"Nobody's hiring nowhere. I've been to D.C. and back and I can't find a job," said Fred Young, 32, a Fredericksburg bricklayer who was making $17 an hour until he got laid off six weeks ago and came to American Labor to work for $5 an hour.
"You got to feed your kids," he said, picking up a broom and trudging off to a construction site with his brother, who left his family in Chicago to find work in Virginia.
A year ago, people in Northern Virginia looking for day workers routinely called area homeless shelters, filling up the bulletin boards there every week with employment notices.
"They could walk out the door and find a job in either direction," said Marilyn Chisholm, director of the ACTS shelter in Dumfries.
Aided by the day jobs and the shelter's requirement that residents work and save 70 percent of their wages, 38 percent of those who entered the facility last year were able to go on to permanent housing and 41 percent got into temporary housing, Chisholm said.
"It's been a good five months since I've had anyone call in to say they had a job," Chisholm said.
"There's much more competition," said Jana Graves, director of Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston. "It's going to take them longer to get work and they'll end up being homeless longer."
Employment agencies are besieged with skilled applicants looking for menial work.
"They're looking to take anything," said Cheri Lyon, owner of Shining Armorer labor company in Landover. "People are literally, verbally begging me. They'll do anything."
The American Labor office was a reflection of this situation the other day, with job-seekers that included a middle-age fiber optics installer living off savings to a young man squatting in an abandoned house with broken windows and neither heat nor water.
Most days, there are more people than jobs. This day, Burgess sent a van to a nearby homeless shelter when he had extra positions.
Chuck Minor lost a fast-food job recently. He is looking for anything steady but has three children to support in the meantime. "Work is work," he said.
Some seem to enjoy it more than others.
"To tell you the truth, I kind of like it," said a man who asked not to be identified. He first came to American Labor to hire workers when he had a job installing fiber optic cable, but has been returning for the last eight months to seek employment for himself. "There's not a lot of responsibility. You don't have to shave if you don't want to. If you don't like it, you can leave."