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Neighbors Paying Price of Sidewalk Labor Pool

Times Staff Writer

Few residents and merchants along a half-mile stretch of Kester Avenue in Van Nuys say they want to deprive any man of an honest day’s work and wages. But no one, it seems, wants scores of day laborers gathered in front of their homes and businesses to find jobs.

A recent surge in the number of Latino day laborers along Kester Avenue between Oxnard Street and Victory Boulevard is a mounting source of anger and frustration for many people living and working in the area.

They complain that the early-morning crowd of about 150 men, many of them illegal aliens, is a public nuisance, turning customers away, harassing passers-by and damaging property. What most concerns them is that there does not seem to be a solution to a problem they believe is spurring a quick deterioration of their neighborhood.

“It looks terrible, period,” said Bruce Ackerman, executive vice president of the Van Nuys Chamber of Commerce. “All of a sudden we’ve got 50 people standing at Victory, 50 at Oxnard, 50 at Delano and a string of others up and down the street. It’s a sad, complex problem and I wish I had a solution.”

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Gathering Had Been Small

For years, the corner of Kester and Delano Street has been one of several spots in the San Fernando Valley that draws unemployed men hoping to be picked up for a day’s work, mainly in construction or gardening.

The group had been quiet and small, anywhere from 5 to 35 people, and had gathered on the corner of a run-down auto body shop where they drew little attention, longtime businessmen said.

But in the past six to nine months, their numbers have skyrocketed and the pickup points have spread along the avenue.

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Groups of 40 to 60 people gather on the corner of Kester and Oxnard in front of a building supply firm and on the corner of Kester and Victory near an apartment complex and corner shopping center. About 30 men still stand at Kester and Delano. Stragglers line the half-mile of avenue between Oxnard and Victory.

In part, the burgeoning crowd can be attributed to the exploding Central American population in Los Angeles, said Sylvia Gonzales, program director for Van Nuys-based International Institute of Los Angeles, a United Way agency for illegal aliens.

“It’s not Mexicans that are standing out there,” Gonzales said, “it’s Salvadorans. They are the newcomers looking for an opportunity to work, and the corner is their best chance to find it. I know because many of them come to the office.”

Several of the men said word of mouth has spread the belief that work can be found at the Van Nuys spot, bringing more and more men weekly.

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Other Spots Too Crowded

“I had been out looking for work for two weeks. I was going to go work at a car wash for $2.50 an hour,” Rafael Pardo, 22, said in Spanish as he waited at Kester and Victory. Pardo said the car wash manager told him he could be paid the $3.35-per-hour minimum wage only if he had a “green card” indicating he was in the United States legally.

Pardo said he started going to the Van Nuys corner because “my friends told me I could make $5 an hour here.”

Some said they had traveled from downtown Los Angeles because pickup spots there are too crowded.

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“At Pico and La Brea, forget it,” said Gilbert Rodriguez, 22, referring to a pickup spot. “There are so many people over there it’s harder to get the work. Here there’s no tension and it’s a lot easier.”

The Van Nuys spot is unusual because it is next to a residential neighborhood. Most other spots throughout the county are in industrial or commercial areas. Although there are small businesses at the Kester-Oxnard intersection, most of the avenue is lined with apartment buildings and small houses.

It is the daily routines of owners of property and small businesses that seem to collide daily with the routine of the men, who gather at daybreak to begin their street-corner vigil.

“Every morning I have to wake up to the fact that there are 50 or 60 men standing right outside my patio,” said Lane Lewis, 52, a 13-year resident of an apartment building near Kester and Victory.

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“They stand there with their beers and drink. They urinate or take bowel movements in the alley. There’s graffiti all over our walls and litter everywhere. Now that’s gross for a residential area,” Lewis said.

Many of the men acknowledge that their presence is creating problems.

“But we have to work and this is the place to find it. There is nothing more to my life than work,” said a 36-year-old man who did not want his name used.

“It’s true men go to the bathroom and leave trash,” he said. “But the men who come here are not all the same. Some are clean, some are dirty. I know that most of us here are good men and are just trying to better ourselves.”

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“If they want to come here and work hard to better themselves, that’s one thing and that doesn’t bother me,” Lewis said. “What gets me is that they are defacing property and bothering the people who live here. That’s not fair.”

Lewis and others said any crowd would create problems in a neighborhood.

A 29-year-old woman who lives alone in the area said some women in the neighborhood are afraid to walk down the street in the morning.

“You have to listen to the whistles, those kissy-kissy sounds,” she said. “You feel like they are mentally undressing you. I had to walk to the bus stop and was just praying all the way.”

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Business people complain that customers are turned away or are becoming wary of the area and that their property is marred with trash.

Drop in Business Claimed

“The ladies, the children used to come here every morning,” said Eliaho Cosanim, owner of a corner convenience store. “Now they are afraid of the men and the store is empty until noon. I’ve gone from selling 38 gallons of milk a week to six gallons because of this.”

Don Durant, owner of a Kester apartment building, said he was forced to put up a chain-link fence to keep men out of the alley between his building and Cosanim’s store.

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“Before the fence went up that alley was like an open sewer,” Durant said. I’ve had three tenants move out because of this. The desirability of this neighborhood is changing.”

Residents said they have called and written letters to Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi and have called police to remove men from their property. Several said they have called the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“We complain over and over and over again, but nothing can be done,” Lewis said.

A spokesman for Bernardi said complaints have been referred to the Police Department.

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“We are very limited to what we can do,” said Jim Winters, an aide to Bernardi. “We have looked into the problem many times, but it’s a police problem. We’ve been told by police that there is nothing we can do about the fact that they are gathering there. They are waiting for work and that’s to their credit, in my opinion.”

The Police Department said that for the most part the men gather peacefully and the nature of the alleged crimes--littering, trespassing, lewd conduct--are minor offenses and take a back seat to more serious crimes.

“We are guided by priorities and these men seem to be more a nuisance than anything else. There’s no law against standing on a street corner and doing nothing,” said Capt. Art Sjoquist, commanding officer of the Van Nuys Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. “If some of the men are here illegally, then the INS has a job to do.”

But an INS spokesman said day labor spots also are a low enforcement priority with the agency.

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“Unfortunately, there are many pickup points in Los Angeles and we don’t have the manpower to spend any considerable amount of time in these areas,” said Joe Flanders, INS spokesman. “About the only thing we can do is target a spot during overall sweep operation of an area.”

Two weeks ago, 58 people suspected of being illegal aliens were arrested along the avenue as part of a week of INS raids throughout Los Angeles County. Flanders said the spot was included because of complaints from residents and merchants.

Predictably, the crowd was back out on Kester Avenue days later.

“I know this is not the way Americans get their jobs,” one of the day laborers, 25-year-old Sergio Orsuna, said in Spanish. “But this is the only way for me. How can I be taking jobs away from Americans if I stand here and wait to be picked up by someone?”

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In hopes of easing the situation along the avenue, merchants have set trash cans out around their property. No-trespassing signs have sprung up on walls.

Several, however, said they do not want to call the police or the INS for fear of retaliation.

“I know a lot of these guys have families and I don’t want to ruin it for them by calling immigration,” said Mario Davila Jr., owner of a used-car lot at Kester and Delano. “Besides, I don’t want a rock through my window.”

“It’s basically one of those things that we are going to have to tolerate and learn to live with even though it upsets a lot of people to see them out every day,” Winters said.

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