In one of Washington's most affluent churches, in a salon featuring gilt-framed portraits and a baby grand piano, some of the city's poorest were holding forth on a recent Sunday.
"Please help us," begged Claudio Delgado, 35, a Nicaraguan who seeks work each morning with a crowd of immigrants at 15th and P streets NW. "We suffer every day. Imagine how difficult it is to change bosses every day."
In the back of the room, a Mexican worker jumped to his feet. Addressing the room filled with churchgoers, immigrant advocates and residents of the Dupont and Logan Circle neighborhoods, he said that day laborers are often cheated out of their wages, and that there's little they can do about it.
"We are afraid to call the police, because we are illegal," said Anacleto, a 34-year-old laborer whose last name is being withheld because of deportation concerns.
The meeting at Foundry United Methodist Church near Logan Circle marked an effort to address an issue that has roiled the region: the crowds of day laborers, many of them here illegally, who flock to street corners seeking work.
Although no definitive solutions emerged, the session provided a rare opportunity for a formal dialogue between the city's day laborers and local residents -- people who share the same Northwest neighborhoods but often lack even a common language.
In recent months, community organizations have begun considering the possibility of a permanent staging area for the District's day laborers. Several Washington suburbs have set up such sites, often supported by public funds, to provide clean, organized places for workers to seek jobs.
Advocates say the centers can resolve residents' complaints about the proliferating outdoor sites, where day laborers sometimes urinate in public, leave trash or pester passing women. The centers have been controversial, however, with residents of some suburbs strongly opposed to using tax dollars to help people who might be in the country illegally.
The District has fewer day laborers than the suburbs, where hundreds sometimes throng to an outdoor site. Several dozen workers crowd Washington's main informal site, on P Street, every morning; in addition, a handful turn up at a 7-Eleven in Mount Pleasant.
Community and church activists are concerned that the city's gentrification wave could swallow up the sites. A Duron Paints and Wallcoverings store on P Street where the workers used to cluster recently closed, making way for a condominium building featuring Italian-design kitchens and a health club. The laborers now gather outside a McCormick Paints store across the street, on a block that attracts an ever-more-upscale crowd with a Whole Foods supermarket, trendy restaurants and a Starbucks.
"They really don't know where the future lies," said Jose Gonzalez of the Spanish Education Development Center in Adams Morgan, who recently established a database to collect information on the site's day laborers. "If [developers] decide to build a high-rise where the McCormick building is, they'd have nowhere to go."
Spurred by that concern, a church worker, Jana Meyer, invited community activists, residents and day laborers to the meeting earlier this month at Foundry United Methodist Church, a block from the day-labor site. Francisco Pacheco, a regional day-labor organizer, gave a presentation on how the workers could set up a center -- from writing up a mission statement to creating short-term work contracts that employers would fill out. Immigrant advocates offered to help the workers get started and raise funds.
After Pacheco's presentation, workers raised their hands, one by one, describing in Spanish their struggles, including cases in which they were not paid for work.
Residents, many listening to a translation through earphones, expressed their perplexity and concern about the workers' situation.
Chris Kohatsu, 28, a representative of the Logan Circle Community Association, took the floor with a stern warning to the laborers: Neighbors are fed up with the harassment of passing women and gay men.
"If you want us to be behind you and treat that corner, 15th and P, as a professional workplace, we must address the concern of sexual harassment," she said. "It is not acceptable in any other workplace."
Her statement prompted some raised eyebrows from the day laborers, most of whom came from Latin American countries.
"It's different, sexual harassment, from just a compliment. A compliment: 'Wow, you're pretty,' " Oscar Aragon, 55, a day laborer from El Salvador, explained to the crowd in Spanish.
But he acknowledged: "There are other comments that are not so nice. But we don't all do it. Sometimes we just greet the women, 'Buenos dias.' "
Some residents asked why workers didn't take their complaints about lack of payment to small-claims court, or at least jot down employers' license plates.
"If we go to claim what's due us, they say we have no receipt" or evidence of having done the work, Aragon replied. He said day laborers feared they might be detained if they contacted authorities, even though District police have a policy against picking up people simply for immigration violations.
Although the crowd seemed generally sympathetic to the workers, some residents said their plight represented a conundrum for the city.
Michael Thompson, 47, a freelance editor who lives in Logan Circle, took the floor to urge his neighbors to ensure that contractors are paying the day laborers.
"If you live in a $300,000 condo, don't assume it was built with all paid labor. . . . Some of that might be unpaid labor," Thompson said.
But after the meeting, he gently questioned an immigrant advocate about whether it was proper for the city to support a day-labor center.
"How does the D.C. government, which is supposed to uphold the laws, work for people who aren't even supposed to be here?" he asked.
Norberto Martinez, an outreach worker from the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, assured the crowd that the government was committed to helping the workers and avoiding a situation such as the one in suburban Herndon, where a proposal for a day-labor center recently blew up into a controversy of national proportions.
"The workers are here, and they're not leaving. We have to find a solution," Martinez said.
By the end of the meeting, immigrant advocates and the day laborers were talking about forming a task force to study the idea of a worker center. Several day laborers said they had taken to heart the residents' request for a commitment to stop harassing women.
"Sometimes people are right about what they say about the corner," Aragon said. "There are people there who seek work, but there's a little group that goes to drink and smoke marijuana. So a girl passes, and some are drunk, and they say, 'Hey, pretty girl.'
"Those of us who don't drink have to say, 'Don't bother her.' "
"Commitment! Commitment!" Delgado, the day laborer from Nicaragua, implored the workers. He gazed around the emptying room. "From today onward, the corner will improve."