Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Men at day labor center try to stay warm while waiting for work.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Men at day labor center try to stay warm while waiting for work.
Organizers of a Portland center for day laborers say support from city officials has waned. That is complicating a capital campaign meant to fund a permanent building on the site.  

The center, on city-owned land amid industry at Northeast Martin Luther King and Everett, is run by Voz Workers' Rights Education Project. In part with funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Voz gives workers a dry and central place to wait for employers to find them. The center also prevents wage fraud and other shady deals, which were par for the course when laborers stood on various corners around the city.

When the site opened, the city offered a five-year lease. After that agreement expired in March, the Portland Development Commission offered only a month-by-month arrangement and said Voz could be asked to leave with six months notice. Leaders of Voz say the precarious standing has made it difficult to secure funders for a plan to construct better buildings.

Romeo Sosa, executive director of Voz, says he has asked PDC to list the property in the name of Voz so that funders will have confidence. He does not want to buy the land or have it donated — just listed with the Voz name.

"We want a permanent building," says Sosa, comparing the shed-like enterprise to larger and sturdier centers in Seattle, Los Angeles and Baltimore. More professional offices would not only be more humane for workers, but would attract more employers, he explains.

The Seattle day labor center received $2 million in public funding and includes rooms for English and computer classes, a waiting area and a kitchen. Baltimore's center is housed on a donated mansion.   

"Voz has done a lot of good work down there," says Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of St. Francis Parish, where Voz has offices. "The place provides dignity for workers. They don't get caught out in the rain."

Chapman recalls that the initiative was favored by business owners and residents of the neighborhood, who saw it as a way to prevent various corners from springing up as crowded day labor sites.

"Month-to-month makes it really complicated for planning," says Chapman, who has also worked with the city on St. Francis Dining Hall, which provides free meals to people in need. "Funders need to know they will be around."

Chapman says PDC is giving a mixed message: send potential funders to us for assurance, but also, we can have you leave the site with only six months notice.
Portland gave $200,000 to Voz to start the center and has given $25,000 annually since, charging only $1 per year in rent.  

"We have made it abundantly clear that our support is in place," says Shawn Uhlman, PDC spokesman. Uhlman says the commission has no intention of asking Voz to leave the property. Patrick Quinton, PDC’s executive director, has invited Voz to send potential donors to him to be reassured. Uhlman says PDC will do what it can to help if Voz wants to purchase the property, but does not simply sign over city-owned parcels.

The 2013 market value of the land tops $360,000 — well out of the reach of Voz. The value has tripled since 2000 as industry has picked up in inner Northeast. Selling the parcel could mean a boost to the PDC, which is trying to reduce its land holdings.

The original agreement between the city and Voz said the non-profit would work toward building a more permanent center on city site or elsewhere.  

The center was created with backing of former Mayor Tom Potter. The office of current Mayor Charlie Hales had not offered comment as of press time.

"Support is not as strong as it used to be," Sosa concludes. "We feel the city sees it as us against them instead of us together. They say they support us, but we don't feel that." Sosa says if the center closes, day laborers will head back to the corners.