I am writing in response to the article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled “Doing Unto Others” (9/3). Coates rightly points out the injustice of companies’ taking advantage of homeless people—poor people—by hiring them as day laborers. And I agree with Coates that it is both strange and very ironic that homeless people are hired for the day to evict people—which makes them, in turn, homeless. However, I do object to the article because it very blatantly tries to associate So Others Might Eat (SOME) with the day laborers’ vans.
SOME has been in the city for 29 years, and our mission is clearly to feed the hungry and homeless, as well as to offer programs that help people out of homelessness and poverty. Our mission also is to treat people we have the opportunity to serve with dignity and respect. As I said to Coates, we do not agree with day labor and see it as exploitation and demeaning. Homeless people are desperate for work and will take any job. Our dining room at SOME provides more than 1,000 meals a day to hungry people. Day-labor vans show up in the area, down the block, or in the alley offering work for the day. SOME does not allow day-labor vans on our premises. Nor would we encourage anyone to participate.
Our solution to unemployment for homeless persons or persons coming off welfare is the opposite of day labor or cheap labor of any sort, be it part-time work or full-time work without benefits. Our solution is the Center for Employment Training, started a year and a half ago, where we currently have 55 students. The goal is to offer job training for six months and to find graduates jobs that will pay at least a living wage, be full-time, and offer benefits. Anything else will keep people working-poor. We believe it takes six months to teach a skill, as well as to emphasize work ethic, attitude on the job, how to deal with anger and stress, and so forth. The skills we teach are office automation and computers, and building maintenance and repair; we hope to open our certified nursing assistant course next month. We work with industry, which oversees curriculum and offers jobs to people. SOME has invested highly in this program, which costs us nearly $900 a month per student and is funded only by donations. (We can always use volunteers to help in computer tutoring during the work day). We have folks who have gone from homelessness or welfare to being productive, self-sustaining people because of their full-time jobs, living wages, and benefits.
The article is the second article on day labor that has been misleading as far as SOME is concerned. Coates did another article on the same subject earlier this summer (“Bummer Rental,” 7/30). By inference and many references to SOME in his articles, Coates is trying to associate the day-labor vans with our organization. The opposite is true. While day-labor vans do offer work to homeless people who leave SOME, we do not encourage, endorse, or have anything to do with recruiters. They are not allowed on our premises. Coates’ article states that the corner of 1st and O Streets is the home of SOME; that is inaccurate. That is the corner where day-labor vans often pick up laborers. SOME is located a half-block away. SOME does not allow vans or recruiters to come on our premises. The police often ask the vans to leave the area as well. Mr. Coates indicates in his article that a recruiter came into our dining room to recruit. If that is true, it is a violation of our policy. When I asked our staff on duty this morning in the dining room, our dining-room coordinator was unaware of who the recruiter was or that he had been in our dining room. That would not be surprising, since we do serve two meals a day, seven days a week, and provide over 1,000 meals a day (500 to 600 people at each meal). Nonetheless, our policy and intention are quite clear.
Coates does the community a service by pointing out the exploitation of homeless workers by day-labor recruiters. He does it a disservice by suggesting that SOME would be associated with or condone such recruiters. I would be happy to invite him or anyone to visit SOME and see our programs firsthand.