Day Labors - Night Falls

Austin's Day Labor Site Attracts Drugs, Criminals

On the evening of August 12, when 19-year-old Ali Cokley was shot in the head at the city-owned lot on César Chavez between San Antonio and Guadalupe, the trucks that routinely pull in to pick up day laborers had long stopped coming. Cokley was fatally wounded right next to a line of porta-johns that sits behind Liberty Lunch and the homeless service provider Helping Our Brothers Out (HOBO). But HOBO had closed its doors at 4pm; and there was no show scheduled that night at Liberty Lunch. So what was Cokley -- and all the other people who were there -- doing in the lot?

According to Frank, who claimed to be a friend of the victim but declined to give his last name, the shooting had been prompted by an earlier incident in which Cokley and a partner had robbed a man of his dope at gun point -- "In broad daylight they just pulled a gun on him, robbed him" -- and after another altercation on Monday the 12th, says Frank, "the guy left and got a gun and came back" and shot Cokley. Some elements of this account seem consistent with the Austin Police Department's report: Spokesperson Michelle Walker said police heard there had been more than one shot, and that they believed the shooting "stemmed from a prior argument." And on August 13, the APD issued a warrant for a 31-year-old East Austin resident. Walker would not comment on the investigation or on whether APD believes the crime to be drug-related.

The details of life after-hours at the day labor site that the shooting incident uncovered are hardly a revelation to HOBO representatives, or to local business owners like Liberty Lunch's Mark Pratz, who say they've complained for the past year about the loitering. They watched the area grow dangerous as drinking, drug-dealing, and even prostitution became regular features of the lot at night. And yet, when asked prior to the incident if APD considered the area a problem at night, Assistant Police Chief Bruce Mills said, "It would be if I'd heard complaints, but I haven't heard any complaints." Similarly, when Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard was asked about reports of drug-dealing and fighting on the lot, he said, "This is the first I've heard that there were those kinds of problems at night... I'm not aware of those problems -- maybe there's somebody who is -- if there's some difficulty down there, then we need to look into that."

But while the city's staff and police force may have been shocked by the deadly violence that broke out near HOBO three weeks ago, HOBO workers who oversee the lot during the day say they had predicted that it was just a matter of time. "We've asked the APD so many times," said HOBO executive director Teresa Ramos, "We need 24-hour security here. We're here till four o'clock [in the afternoon]; after that, you know, it's party time." Nor did the incident surprise Pratz, who is supposed to have the use of the lot after 5pm for his customers. Pratz observed, a few days before the murder, that, "It's pretty much turned into an open-air crack market out there."

Certainly this is not the kind of thriving enterprise one envisions when downtown honchos speak of the "revitalization of the Warehouse District," the area spreading north from the lot which has fostered the success of Liberty Lunch and more recently the Austin Music Hall, La Zona Rosa, and Live Oak Theatre. Perhaps it is impossible for an outsider to know the whole truth about what happened to Ali Cokley, and whether drugs were involved, but it is possible to examine the history of the lot and what goes on there during the day and at night, as a way of understanding the circumstances that made something like this, as Pratz said, "inevitable."

Since February 1993, the lot has been the designated pick-up site for day laborers. Neighborhood groups had long complained of fights, drinking, and drug use at the old, unofficial site on César Chávez and I-35, but it was not until the Convention Center opened nearby that the city council approved the new site and placed it under the supervision of HOBO. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The Texas Employment Commission (TEC) set up an office on the site to help the non-profit Labor Connections Program, which is also at the site, find temporary work for the laborers and ensure their payment; HOBO provided the laborers, many of whom are homeless, with the facilities to clean up and go to the bathroom, make phone calls, get counseling, even find permanent homes and jobs.

But then things took a turn for the worse. City budget cuts caused HOBO to drop some services this year, and the TEC pulled up stakes as well. That left Labor Connections to deal single-handedly with the increasing population of laborers -- director Adam Cantu said that of the 500 or so clients he sees daily, 80% are illegal immigrants. The no-camping ordinance passed this year made the lot somewhat of a political Twilight Zone, as hundreds slept there nightly in defiance of the law. (Until the shooting, the ordinance was not enforced in the area.) APD spokesperson Sally Muir said police calls in the 400 block of Cesar Chavez have increased over the years, going from 58 in 1994 to 74 in 1995. By the end of July this year, 50 calls have come in on "anything from public intoxication, pedestrians in the roadway, minor assaults -- a fairly wide variety," said Muir. Considering the number of laborers and homeless who use the area, "The lot's too small," complained Cantu.

Just one week before the shooting, I interviewed Joyce Pohlman, of the city's Department of Health and Human Services' Planning and Evaluation Office, which will be overseeing HOBO's move. She was unaware of the situation at HOBO. "Are there really people sleeping at HOBO at night?" Pohlman asked. Yes, there were -- hundreds of them; and as I walked down San Antonio to César Chavez on Friday, August 2, their bodies were packed tightly side-by-side on the concrete dock that runs along the west side of HOBO's building. All of those people slept there "at their own risk," said HOBO's Ramos -- clients are warned of the no-camping ordinance both verbally and by signs posted around the dock, but most ignore it.

On that Friday morning at 7am, HOBO opened, and the bodies stirred and rose, as church groups and neighborhood charities pulled into the lot to offer free breakfasts of hard-boiled eggs, tortillas, and coffee. Already, the laborers were divided by race; blacks congregated on benches under kiosks on the west side of the lot, while Hispanics settled under the eastern ones, and crowded the east entrance to the lot. Then the trucks came. Each time one pulled into the lot, the men mobbed around it before the driver had a chance to roll down the window, shouting and holding up their hands like a class full of students bursting to answer a teacher's question. The driver surveyed the crowd, picked out one, maybe two men seemingly at random, and then left the rest to drift back to their posts beneath the kiosks.

"I'm not up here to hang out," a man named Solomon Gardner told me, "I'm here to work... I'm here to make money." Gardner does not sleep at the lot like some of the men, instead paying $8.50 a night for a room at the Bunk Haus on East Seventh. He had ridden the 'Dillo here this morning to try to get some work before going to his part-time job as a telemarketer. He's worked as a painter, ditch-digger, and in construction, but he laughed when I asked him what a laborer can expect to earn in a week. "You'll average $60-70 if you work a minimum of eight hours," he said. But most workers usually receive about $5 an hour, Gardner added, and "unless you got a long-term job -- two or three days is max" as far as the availability of work for the week. Gardner said it's a matter of "jugglin' and strugglin'" to keep his room and part-time job, and he merely hopes to get by until he earns his cosmetology degree so he can cut hair for a living.

By 8:30am, many of the men had already been picked up and whisked away to help do the grunt work that lays the foundation for the suburbs springing up around Austin. As it got hotter, the remaining men settled in for a long wait, exchanging newspapers and talking, and a group of Hispanic men began kicking a soccer ball around on the eastern edge of the lot. The police arrived, in the form of a cruiser and two vans, and this drew the invective of some of the men. "The cops got nothing better to do than hang around here all day harassing homeless people," one man observed. "That's what gives people the perception that something bad's going on around here, 'cause they drive by and see all the cops."

But Mills of the APD responded that it's more than "perception" -- the APD gets an increasing number of complaints about the men from the lot "spilling out of there and impeding the flow of traffic... We're going to increase patrols down there, to make sure they're not impeding traffic or standing in the roadway." Indeed, true to Chief Mills' word, at about 9am a red pickup got pulled over on Guadalupe just outside the lot, for stopping on the street to solicit workers. The driver cursed, spat on the sidewalk, and lamely complained that "I thought it was illegal to pull in there" as his ticket was written up; the Mexican man who rushed into the street to climb into the truck, meanwhile, was arrested and led to one of the police vans. "That's what they're asked to do," said Mills when I asked him about the incident, "check it out during rush-hour times."

This approach takes on aspects of the absurd, however, when applied to the scores of men flagging down work on the streets surrounding the labor lot. Typically, they fan out in clusters along Second Street as far east as Congress Avenue, and on August 2 a large group of Mexican nationals waited on Second across from City Hall. Two men explained that they don't like to wait in the labor lot -- "Too many blacks." Five men from Monterrey said they all sleep in an abandoned building downtown -- they don't like to sleep at the HOBO lot because it's "too dangerous... too many drugs." They work in order to send money home to their families -- as much as $100 a week.

As I talked with the men, a police cruiser pulled up and stopped at the curb, and the men began to drift away in the opposite direction. This is the subtle game police must play with the laborers outside the lot, since it's not illegal to stand out there waiting for a job. Yet because most of the men are illegal immigrants, they disappear when the cops show up; I watched the cruiser disperse several other clusters in the same way.

Most area merchants don't mind the laborers' presence, as it turns out. A representative from the nearby Live Oak Theatre said, "These are just guys looking for work. They're pretty good guys." Another nearby business owner, who asked not to be named, commented that he doesn't have a problem with the workers. "They're just trying to make some money to live, to feed their families. They don't bother us, or our customers," he said. This merchant had even hired some of the men from time to time to work in his shop. Yet everyone qualifies their endorsement of the "guys just looking for work" by adding, as the Live Oak rep did, "I'm not going to say there haven't been problems" -- and therein lies the rub. "We've had some problems with people breaking into cars and stuff, and we've always been able to trace it back to the transients at HOBO, 'cause they try to sell it back to us."

"The day-labor part of it is not the problem," Pratz of Liberty Lunch explained. "The real problem down there is they're being allowed to sleep on the loading dock at night." (In a subsequent interview, Pratz said that the police have reduced the number of people sleeping on the dock since the shooting, but drugs are still bought and sold in the area.)

The question is whether some of the men who hustle jobs during the day are the same criminals who break into cars and deal dope. And if so, when does a man cease being "just a guy looking for work" and start being a "transient"? The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), a self-taxing business group which represents property owners in central downtown, has been very vocal in wanting the labor lot moved, even writing a letter to the city manager calling the lot an "eyesore." Tom Stacy, vice chairman of the DAA's board of directors, defined it this way: "After nine o'clock in the morning, they're really transitioned from being laborers to being vagrants." Pratz is a bit more lenient, giving the laborers until 3:30 or 4pm -- after that, he said, "There's nobody coming around [looking for workers] -- then they have to close the place down."

It is true that as the after- noon of August 2 wore on, the men lingered around the lot. It is true that many of them had not found work. And it is true that 24-oz. cans of Schlitz wrapped in paper bags began to appear between men's feet. It is also true that there is never enough work for all the men, and the trucks that did pull in were dropping men back off at the lot, because they had nowhere else to go. The midday heat on the asphalt lot was unbearable, and the level of frustration and racial tension rose with the temperature: "You wanna know what the dirt is around here?" a man named Leroy said to me. "It's the Mexicans... the wetbacks... illegal aliens -- they all say it's the blacks, but it's the Mexicans."

I sat with Leroy and Tyrone for a while in the square of shade beneath the kiosk. Tyrone, who had only worked about 12 days in the last month, making $60 each time, complained, "We lost a lot of work when they moved this place from I-35. Back then we could get work every day, guaranteed -- even at one o'clock in the afternoon. Here you're not guaranteed a job even if you show up at 6am." Both also grumbled about the frequent presence of the police and about the expected drug activity in the lot that night, since it was the first of the month and everyone had money.

"Yeah, it's a different world," said Tyrone. "You don't wanna be out here at night. Don't come here after dark -- shoot -- don't come here after five o'clock," he laughed.

Although APD vehemently denied it, Rick Aguilar, the security guard who patrols the lot during the day for HOBO, contends that "the approach the police take is that this is a corral, and as long as they can keep everything penned in here, then it's okay." Cantu of Labor Connections added, "I think if they can have all of them contained in this area, they feel better about them being here than out in the neighborhoods -- even though there's drugs, fighting, prostitution..." Even Pratz, responding to talk of the labor lot and HOBO being moved and the area demolished, said, "It may be the police are not wanting to do anything to force the issue... I can see that letting the area deteriorate is a great way to speed that process."

Failing to heed Tyrone's advice, I returned to the lot that Friday evening around 9pm, although my visit proved to be short-lived. At first glance, not much seemed to have changed since earlier in the day; there was still a strong police presence in the area, but now the officers were occupied with barricading streets and directing traffic as the crowds rolled down to Town Lake for the start of Aquafest. Many of the same men still haunted the kiosks, and several others still kicked around the soccer ball, though now at the western edge of the lot. The tension was palpable as I entered the lot -- several men flagged me down to ask who I was, what I was doing there; others who remembered talking to me earlier explained that I was a reporter, though this news hardly seemed to reassure them. Some drank beer, which could be bought for a buck a can from a garbage bucket filled with ice. A craps game broke out beneath one kiosk, and a few men gathered around to slap down money and roll the dice. Another man called me over and asked my name, and was not satisfied when I explained I was a reporter for the Chronicle. "Well my name's Cliff and I work at IBM, and this here's Jim, he works at Dell Computer," he scoffed, indicating the man on the bench beside him. "What you doin' here, man -- why you writing about us -- why don't you go write about Aquafest, all the millions they're losing..."

At this point, four young men strolled onto the lot and approached the kiosks, and the tension level rose a bit more. Perhaps Ali Cokley was one of them, or they were his friends -- at any rate they all appeared to be around 18-20 years old, dressed similarly to Frank, Ali's friend, in hightops and gold chains and Fila T-shirts. Certainly they didn't seem to be regular day laborers, just as the security guard and Ramos at HOBO told me that Cokley was not.

Nobody said anything and nothing was seen, but one by one, people begin to sit down on a bench beside one of the young men, and money changed hands, while the rest of the men eyed me suspiciously. I never got a chance to find out exactly what was being bought, as a Hispanic man approached me and said, "Hey man, we don't need no snitch around here. You better leave."

I looked up at him, tried to explain who I was, protested that I wasn't a "snitch."

"We know who you are -- I think you should just leave."

Once again, I tried to explain, offered to show my ID -- by this time I noticed several others loping towards me, and the man talking to me was sweating furiously and clenching his fists and seemed very, very serious: "I don't need to see your ID," he shouted -- "We know who you are -- you better just leave -- now." I was finally inclined to agree, and so I left -- my friend tracking me just to make sure. Another of the young men passed me as I exited the lot, but by that time I was already back among the world of Aquafest crowds and police barricades, and out of the odd land of the labor lot.

One would like, at this point, to make some grand statement about the labor lot and its problems, to say that in the wake of Cokley's death, security will be heightened, drug-dealing and fighting will be wiped out, jobs will be secured for all the workers and everyone will live happily ever after. According to Pratz, police are trying to do their part; APD had "stepped up surveillance and undercover activity" in the weeks prior to the shooting, and maybe this explains Chief Mills' reticence in discussing the department's after-hours efforts. The most noticeable change in the lot since Cokley's shooting, although again police refuse to comment, is the apparent crackdown on homeless people sleeping on the HOBO dock. Ramos says two people have been ticketed for loitering on the lot at night and told not to come back, and word has gotten around that overnight stays will no longer be tolerated. "It's like a normal business now," Ramos says, "We don't have to walk over people to get to the door." Pratz adds that police officers came to see him the day after the shooting, to assure him that they'll increase their presence even more "as part of a comprehensive plan."

The future of the labor lot itself, and HOBO for that matter, is not so reassuring. HOBO Director Hunter Morris says he's gotten the word from Mayor Bruce Todd that "HOBO is going to be moving and the day labor site is going to be moving, too, because the city is going to be demolishing four-and-a-half blocks here." Morris adds that the move will probably be made by next spring. A blue-ribbon committee, he says, is already being formed to locate a new site for HOBO; it will include representatives from HOBO, the city, and the DAA.

But will the labor site stay with HOBO? Pohlman of the Department of Health and Human Services, who will help with the move, says "The day labor site is kind of its own thing... I don't know if that's going to be a part of HOBO's new location or not."

The DAA isn't waiting to find out; Tom Stacy says the group has "taken it upon ourselves to look into [a new labor site] and present it to the city." Stacy believes "the day laborers and the city would be better served by having one north and one south [location], where the construction is taking place." Assistant City Manager Lessard says, "We'd be interested in looking at anyone's ideas -- we're looking at whatever would work for the laborers and the surrounding community. I think the first thing is to find appropriate sites with buffer areas, which are near arteries of transportation, and then talking to the surrounding communities and gaining their support." As to the question of whether the lot will remain part of HOBO, Lessard says, "I think they're somewhat coordinated, so it would be best to keep them together. There's a need for this in the community and we need to find a place for it."

If that's the case, Cantu wonders, why isn't more being done now to find a new labor site? "If indeed they're going to do something for the homeless, then they need to look at where to relocate the labor corner... and then we have to make sure that the neighborhoods are willing to have us there."

Will a move get rid of the drug dealers and criminals who frequent the lot? Or will they just relocate, too? "If they tear the whole thing down," says Pratz, "maybe it'll all just move into the ravine there behind the Austin Music Hall." Or, as laborer Solomon Gardner put it, "If they move this thing, it's just gonna move the problem from one area to another."

The problem has already been moved once, and while police and city efforts to keep the day laborers on the designated lot during the daytime may be well-intentioned, the same approach at night has contributed to the prevalence of fighting, drug dealing, and now the shooting of Ali Cokley. Perhaps in locating a new labor site, city officials will be more realistic about the living situations of those whom the site is intended to serve, and will find a way to ensure their safety, as well as that of the surrounding neighborhoods. As laborer Gardner says, "There's a lot of people waiting on that corner who do want to work -- maybe one out of five people has a roof over their heads. They're struggling. They just want to get on their feet." n

"The approach the police take is that this is a corral, and as long as they can keep everything penned in here, then it's okay." -- Rick Aguilar, the security guard who patrols HOBO's day labor site

When does a man cease being "just a guy looking for work" and start being a "transient"? "Are there really people sleeping at HOBO at night?" asked Joyce Pohlman, homeless coordinator for the city's Department of Health and Human Services. Yes, there were -- hundreds of them.

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