By Maddie Fowler
Public Radio Reporting at Mills College
Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood has a history of welcoming new immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, the area was full of orchards and beer gardens that served as an attraction to San Francisco residents. Today, you can see colorful markets full of produce and piñatas or eat delicious tacos at one of the area’s many food trucks. Many day laborers will wait on street corners eagerly looking for any type of work. And that’s why a center called Street Level Health Project was created a decade ago.
Street Level helps provide healthcare, food and work for some of the most marginalized citizens in the neighborhood. Even though Street Level now serves both men and women, they started out only helping men. “I think men often feel very isolated and ashamed. It’s something they don’t want to talk about,” said Amy Lam, the program director of Street Level. “If you don’t have a job, you don’t have a way to bring money and food to the table. [It’s] really hard to ask for those things.”
This can be especially true for those who have just arrived in the United States from more traditionally masculine cultures. “I think a lot of immigrants go through that depression and confusion of ‘Why did I come here? What am I doing and what is my worth?’” said Lam. “Undocumented immigrants are invisible, homeless people are invisible, formerly incarcerated people are invisible, people who don’t speak English are invisible. So all these communities are silenced by the system that we live in.”
At High Street and Coliseum Way, you can see a crowd of men in heavy lumber coats on the sidewalk, looking for a day’s work. Outreach workers bring coffee and breakfast to share. Many job seekers arrive at 7am and many will leave at dusk. There are 50 to 60 people waiting for jobs, and, according to a man who asked to remain anonymous, only about five to eight people will leave with jobs. Often these jobs are dangerous or illegal.
“Sometimes the guys can’t get work for weeks at a time,” said Joel Aguiar, the Director of Development and Community Relations at Street Level. “Some employers take advantage of the day laborers or mistreat them.”
Some jobs pay less than minimum wage, and others don’t pay at all. According to the National Day Labor Survey, 50 percent of Oakland day laborers work on a job with no pay.
Aguiar is an immigrant. His father, a farm worker, worked for $5 an hour. His mother cleaned houses. “There were times when she had to stop working with a certain employer because they would sexually harass her,” Aguiar said. Up until 3 years ago, his family was undocumented. “I think that’s the struggle a lot of immigrant families face on a daily basis – having come with a lot of dreams and aspirations then confronting the realities of being apart of a labor force that is highly exploited.”
To address the health issues inherent in this type of exploitation, Street Level provides on-site job training and health care. Street Level even sponsors exercise classes, like kick boxing, as a part of their wellness strategy. “They can’t afford a gym membership and they can’t walk around the block because they might get shot,” said Lam. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality in the Fruitvale neighborhood.”
Three days a week, Street Level’s exercise room doubles as a cafeteria, and lunch is served for about 25 people. Groceries, and health care visits, are also provided by the shelter. “In our clinic people come who haven’t seen a doctor in a long time. Some people have never seen a doctor” said Lam.
Providing health care was the organization’s initial goal. When they first began, Street Level actually administered health screenings on the street.
Lam believes the theme of Street Level has been “Reinvented Dreams.” Resilience, she said, is a huge part of the triumph; she is surprised everyday at how strong and good-hearted many remain even through great difficulty. She quoted another outreach worker, Don Francisco, who always said, “Its better to share than for some of us just to have nothing.”
This story originally aired on May 21, 2012.