Sunday, November 20, 2005

Homeless men soliciting work from Hsidim

It's 8 a.m., and the silver minivan with the nervous Hasidic driver comes by for the fourth or fifth time to look over Al Escalet and the other men before driving off again.
"That (expletive). He keeps passin' by and makin' himself hot," shouts Escalet.
The police can't stop the homeless men staying at Camp La Guardia from soliciting work, but the police – responding to complaints from nearby residents – have been known to ticket their potential employers for obstructing traffic.
Escalet and three other men have been waiting two hours on this overcast, slightly chilled fall morning for someone to offer them work.
Escalet is wearing layers of sweaters and a blue cotton hat over his bald head.
The driver of the minivan, a silver-haired, bespectacled man with darting eyes, is waiting for a "regular," someone he picks up daily because the worker is reliable.
"This guy he's waiting for must be a good worker. Either that, or someone's looking for sex," Escalet says, drawing laughter from the other men.
Everyone is frustrated about being passed over.

THE SCENE WITH ESCALET and the other men in front of Camp La Guardia plays out daily, yet is rarely mentioned in discussions about the 1,000-bed facility straddling the towns of Chester and Blooming Grove. About 20 or 30 men from the shelter queue up for work every day as drivers, mostly from Kiryas Joel, or occasionally a contractor from Chester, look for cheap, unregulated labor.
At an average $6 to $8 an hour, the men earn enough for a good meal, some cigarettes and an occasional trip to New York City.
Some "regulars" who have developed a reputation for trustworthiness or hard work, earn much more, though rarely does anyone make more than $100 a day, the workers say.
Homeless individuals are eligible for $45 a month plus $100 in food stamps. The men say, however, they rarely get appointments to see case workers to apply for the assistance, and when they do, the process usually gets bogged down for weeks in bureaucracy.

OFFICIALS WITH VOLUNTEERS of America, the nonprofit paid to operate the shelter, say they discourage the work, which satisfies the men's short-term wants at the expense of their long-term housing and employment needs. VOA officials say they prefer the men work with case workers to help them study for high-school equivalency exams, learn long-term job skills, or go through substance abuse programs to address the underlying causes of their homelessness.
But the shelter cannot force the men to participate in the programs, making the short-term need for cash more attractive to those who are able to put in a hard day's work.
"This is not a prison," said VOA spokesman Andrew Martin. "We cannot control what the men do during the day."
Interviews with the laborers suggest that about 60 to 90 shelter residents work off and on, doing mostly odd jobs. Most work about eight to 12 hours a day at synagogues, construction sites and distribution warehouses in Kiryas Joel and other towns. A few get jobs digging ditches or doing construction for contractors in Chester and Blooming Grove.
Most do not earn health insurance or other benefits and have little recourse if victimized by a ruthless employer. The jobs, almost all of which are off the books, also make it difficult to keep the men from buying alcohol or drugs.
Martin said three shelter residents over the past two months have been arrested for possession of marijuana or other drugs.
"This is not encouraged, just as any day labor work is not encouraged," Martin said. "I can't even begin to imagine what they're doing with the money they're making."

ESCALET SAYS HE IS hoping to earn enough money so he can visit his mother and two brothers in the Bronx. He'll also spend the money on something to eat outside of the shelter's cafeteria food, he says.
"Maybe lasagna, with some garlic bread on the side," he says, dreamily. "Or half a pie of cheesecake. I love cheesecake."
As a former convict on parole for drug dealing, however, he lies at the bottom of the labor pool, even here among society's undesirables.
Still, the Hasidic employers don't ask questions unless they plan on keeping the men as regulars, and the non-Hasidic employers take at least one pay period to find out who's been in prison before letting them go.
That gives Escalet just enough incentive to keep returning to the front gates every morning.
As with any informal labor market, the men at Camp La Guardia are free to negotiate with those they work for. Age and health can work against workers, such as Joe Sabb, a 49-year-old former crack addict who worked with Escalet the day before.
Sabb says the law of diminishing returns kicks in about $6 an hour. "The work is usually harder when there's less money offered," he says.
Escalet wonders aloud whether the Hasidic driver is paying more than that to the worker he's waiting on.
"This guy ain't getting a lot of money, or he's doing a lot of work," Sabb says. "Why else would he wait so long for him?"
Just then, the silver minivan drives off. Sabb says something about work being more frequent after Christmas.
"Christmas?" says Escalet, discouraged. "I don't plan on being here that long."


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