By Karen Masterson and Dan Kulin
WASHINGTON – By 5:30 a.m., a dozen men form a line in front of a small desk inside the city’s largest homeless shelter to pick up $40 to $50 in earnings from the previous day’s work.
Many hope to be selected for another day’s labor; others take their money and head into the rainy, dark morning. “You’ve got to get out there and work. It beats hanging around and doing nothing,” said Warren Young, who began staying at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter five months ago.
“I like certain types of toothpaste and lotion with cocoa butter,” which cost money, said Young, who grew up in the District. But more importantly, he said, the day jobs can lead to permanent work and a ticket out of the shelter.
Monday through Friday, before dawn, homeless men and women around the region head out to try to secure jobs as manual laborers.
The work can be grueling, like hauling out rubble from a demolished building or working as “helpers” for construction companies: cleaning up work sites, spreading cement and operating jackhammers.
Some homeless workers also hawk newspapers along the curbs and median strips of busy streets.
Steve Cleghorn, deputy director of programs for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, said although a good number of homeless people regularly work day jobs, they account for less than 20 percent of the region’s homeless population.
And not all the day workers are homeless. Some are people between jobs or who are using the day work for permanent income, said Samuel Love, coordinator of the District’s day-labor program.
By 5:40 a.m. at CCNV, Michael Clay scans the swelling crowd and begins handing out assignments and Metro fare. He knows many of those waiting by name.
Clay, 46, once lived in CCNV out of necessity. But now, as director and vice president of DSI Enterprises, he lives at the shelter to be close to his workers and observe their progress. DSI works exclusively with CCNV, to match residents with companies needing workers.
Young said Clay has been a motivating presence. “You gotta thank God for Mike,” he said. Clay gets people into structured work days and out of the substance-abuse rut.
But the job assignments made at CCNV – 1,500 to 3,000 annually – sometimes breed animosity.
CCNV resident James Griffin said even though the jobs are supposed to be given out on a first-come, first-served basis, “[Clay] has his favorites.”
Clay concurred. “If in the morning they smell like alcohol, I can’t use them.” Workers who show up regularly, save money and make an effort to get back on their feet are treated favorably, he said.
Unfortunately, he often has more men waiting than there are jobs, especially in bad weather. “It slows down all the work that would be done outside,” Clay said.
DSI charges companies and contractors $9.50 to $10.50 an hour to supply them with workers. The workers are then paid $5 to $6 an hour by DSI, said President Ted Cook.
The wage ratio is similar to those seen at office temporary agencies. Bernadette Gilson, vice president of Temporary Staffing Inc., said the company pays its secretaries and administrative workers $11 or $12 an hour, and charges its clients $20 an hour.
Other big employers of the area’s homeless include The Washington Post and The Washington Times.
Around 6 a.m., as Clay’s day workers disband to assigned jobs, three white vans owned by The Washington Times pull in front of CCNV’s entrance and pick about a half dozen people each.
Those people are brought to Metro stops and major intersections to spend four hours selling newspapers.
Payment for the morning is $10, plus 5 cents for every paper sold, said Hermeka Traynham of The Times’ circulation office. She said once a month The Times takes the “street hawkers” out for dinner and offers bonuses, like jackets.
Tangela Logan, 37, a Times hawker, said, “This is a great vessel for people to get on their feet.” She said selling newspapers helped her move from CCNV to a rented room about a month ago.
Logan said $14 a day from The Times – $10 plus a nickel for each of 80 papers sold – supplements her veterans’ disability check, helping her pay rent and buy food.
The Washington Post runs a similar program through independent contractors, said Andy Denault, a Post spokesman.
About 6,000 to 7,000 Posts are sold each day by hawkers, he said. Each sells 100 to 150 papers every morning, earning 15 cents a paper, Denault said. “They have nothing better to do, so they keep hawking their papers ’til they sell them all,” he said.
Laurel Weir, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said day work is a “viable source of income for people.” But she said there has been little research on the impact the work has on the homeless, and the extent to which companies comply with minimum-wage laws. The federal minimum wage is now $4.75 an hour and will increase to $5.15 beginning Sept. 1. -30-