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Reaching Out

Reston Interfaith tackles Herndon day labor issue, looks for interim hiring site.

Looking to bring an interim day labor site to Herndon, Reston Interfaith held a public meeting at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon to discuss the options available to help alleviate the concerns of the community over the ongoing issue of day laborers.

The Herndon Day Labor Site project, spearheaded by Reston Interfaith, with the help of other community partners, is currently working to identify and operate a formal hiring site in the Town of Herndon. The site, if found and built, would allow day laborers, many of whom currently congregate at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Elden Street and Alabama Drive, to connect with potential employers and receive services, like English classes and citizenship courses, at a regulated and monitored site.

Jose Venegas, director for the temporary hiring site, is out at the 7-Eleven every morning talking with the day laborers and helping them secure employment. Venegas has seen and heard talk around town disparaging the laborers, talk that he says is based on "fear, misconception and half truth."

"There has been no voice of reason," Venegas said. "I hope this discussion here tonight will be a start for a voice of reason, at least at a local level."

Mayor Richard Thoesen agreed with Venegas. Thoesen opened the meeting by equating Herndon’s multicultural population with that of Southern California and he made it clear that he welcomed the new face of Herndon. "Every family and every individual is welcome here," Thoesen said. "When we talk about ‘them,’ it sends the wrong message. We have had day laborers in this country since the Irish came over 200 years ago."

The mayor said he, and the council, shared a sense of frustration with the community, over the ongoing issues at Alabama Drive, but as he stressed there is only so much the town can do, legally.

Thoesen acknowledged the challenges that a new and diverse citizenry can present, but he insisted that it is a benefit to the community, not a detriment as many have said. "It’s difficult to understand new cultures, sometimes," he said, "but our principals are the same. We want safe houses, healthy families and a piece of the American dream." Thoesen said that Herndon had been through many issues in the last two decades, but he said this issue is the most critical this town has faced. "This is a defining moment for the Town of Herndon," the mayor said. "We need the whole community working together and we cannot try to isolate any one segment.

THE WORKING GROUP said it is looking for ways to shift the hiring site from its current informal location, the 7-Eleven, to a new dedicated employment site.

Stanley Martin Properties, who recently purchased the old Herndon Lumber Yard, has agreed in principle to allow Reston Interfaith to operate an interim site at the lumber yard for up to two years, while plans for that site’s redevelopment are worked out with the town.

"An interim site would allow for better control and the ability to manage the workers," said Elizabeth Hagg, director of the Neighborhood Resource Council (NRC). "It would also allow us to link contractors with skilled workers which would result in greater protection for the day laborers."

While at the site, laborers would be subject to a code of conduct. In addition, the site would not be "hang-out site," as some neighbors have worried. The tentative hours would be from 6 a.m. until noon, Monday through Saturday. Officials with Reston Interfaith expressed hope that during other hours, the center could provide classes and seminars for the laborers.

Hagg said the working group is also exploring the idea of a permanent NRC on Alabama Drive that could be enlarged and combined, potentially, with the Herndon Free Clinic. A portion of that could be set aside for a permanent hiring site, Hagg said. The town is considering this proposal in its CIP budget, but current budget constraints and worse-than-feared projections seem to work against this option.

AT MONDAY’S TOWN HALL meeting in Herndon, officials with Reston Interfaith and the town’s Neighborhood Resource Council, spelled out the benefits afforded by an interim site.

While the Town Council and the Herndon Planning Commission will be involved in the zoning and permits for any site, the private sector, and Reston Interfaith, specifically, that will manage the actual site and deliver the services. Chuck Caputo, of Herndon, is on the board of the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and he said his school would "like to explore the feasibility of partnering with Reston Interfaith to help provide job training courses in areas like construction and landscape management."

Reston Interfaith, in partnership with the Town of Herndon, secured start-up funding to manage the site, facilitate services for the laborers and cover the operating expenses required of an interim site. "We are told that once we get the green light, it should only take two months to be up and running," said Carrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith, after Monday night’s meeting.

It will take a conditional use permit from the town if an interim day labor site is to be authorized. After an interim site was up and running, problems with 7-Eleven site could be handled more efficiently, said Sarah Ince, director of social services for Reston Interfaith. If a site is moved to the lumber yard, the convenience store management has indicated it would call the police on people who continue to hang out around the store. Currently Herndon police’s hands are tied without a town loitering ordinance, but they would be free to arrest people on trespassing charges if 7-Eleven was willing to take that step.

SOPHIA ADJEI teaches English language classes at Hutchison Elementary School in the evenings. Many of her students are day laborers. "It’s sad because they don’t always get paid for the hard work they do," Adjei said. "It’s very, very sad. They are working hard and trying to make a living."

It is cases like these that a permanent site could help, Ince said. "The hirers lose their anonymity," she said. "With a permanent or interim site, we know who they are."

Other people stood up for the workers at Monday’s meeting. Dianna Escobar encouraged the town to rally around the cause. "It is a big issue, and people need to know that they are not just helping these men at 7-Eleven, but we would be helping the families behind the men at 7-Eleven."

Former councilman and mayoral candidate Bill Tirrell expressed concern that there was not enough talk of assimilation. Tirrell questioned the mayor’s link between the Latino immigrants of today and the Irish immigrants of 200 years ago. "When the Irish came here, they assimilated into our society," he said.

Tirrell questioned whether a permanent site would encourage, or discourage, today’s immigrants from assimilating into American culture.

"We don’t expect laborers who come to us in 2002 to still be with us in 2010," Ince said. "We look at this as a labor center where people gain skills, including English, and eventually leave," Ince said.