CASA Latina begins month five in its new Central District location on a note of optimism. The day workers' center saw job opportunities double in the first month after the March move, and reports steady job flow and enhanced participation in ESL and other programs since moving from its smaller former hub in Belltown.
The $3.5 million relocation plan, announced in 2007, initially confronted grave opposition from local business owners and neighbors but after nearly a year of mediated talks and a negotiated Good Neighbor agreement, Central District community leaders report that the center's transition to the new location on South Jackson Street and 17th Ave. South "has been a peaceful one."
"We were cautious [about the move] but we're happy they're here," says Bill Bradburd, a Jackson Place Community Council member. "We have a growing Latino community, and I think the move shows we have a successful multicultural neighborhood."
CASA Latina, founded in 1994, is the only day workers' center in Washington state, serving more than 1,750 recent Latino immigrant laborers and several hundred local contractors and homeowners. For years its Battery Street and Western Avenue location was plagued by unsanitary conditions for workers, limited space and the presence of homeless and unemployed individuals not associated with the day workers' program loitering outside.
"We were in a parking lot," says CASA Latina's Executive Director, Hilary Stern. "We didn't have running water [or] telephones, and in addition, there was an image problem, there is an outdoor drug market [at the former location]...being in the middle of an outdoor drug market is not the best for the image of the center. "
Jesus Pina, a day worker who has been with CASA Latina for four years, earning money to send back to his relatives, adds, "[In Belltown], there were issues with a group that didn't support us and hurt the reputation of those that came to CASA Latina to work, [those] of us who have families, and are committed to sending back money... this for us was not good, because we lost a lot of employers."
"[Our new location] seems much better, and much more organized," he continues.
Martin Najera, another day laborer who moved to Seattle a year and a half ago from Guatemala, says "[The new location] seems to be a good place... where we were at first, it seemed there was a lot of disdain for the people, because of everyone hanging out around and in the center, it appeared like all of us drank, all of us were bad folk."
"Here," he says with a gesture toward the bright, spacious room where several dozen workers have gathered before dawn with their breakfast to wait for a job call, "It's great."
One of the most lauded features distinguishing the new location, beyond the provision of basic running water and clean, private facilities, is the Center's capacity to house administrative offices, ESL classes and CASA's women's empowerment program in the same place as the day workers' center, rather than separating the facilities, as they were previously forced to do.
Guadalupe Adams, the Center's employment coordinator, already notes a difference in program quality. "The space is better, we're all together, and the programs are attended and engaging," she says. "I think we've united more as a result."
Despite a demonstrated need for a new building, CASA Latina struggled for several years to find a neighborhood amenable to hosting a day workers' center. In 2005, it abandoned a controversial plan to purchase the old Chubby & Tubby's property in Rainier Valley after neighbors protested that Rainier Valley needed a retail presence, rather than more social services, to boost the neighborhood's economy. At the time however, spokespersons for CASA Latina stated that racism and a fear of Latino immigrant men were strong motivating factors in the neighbors' protests as well.
Bradburd noted that some of the most vehement opponents of the Chubby & Tubby's proposal stirred early opposition to the South Jackson move, but that fears of the neighborhood's deterioration had since been largely assuaged.
Claud Zervas, a local artist living on South Jackson, joined a group of neighbors initially against the relocation, largely due to having received very little notice about the decision until money had already been committed to the site.
"People were upset because it was a surprise," says Zervas. "We were just afraid of street people flagging down cars, people hanging out on the sidewalk, not going through CASA Latina [to get jobs]."
"So far," he says, "that isn't happening."
"Literally, their front door and ours face each other, " says Erica Porter, a program administrator for the Central Area Development Association, another non-profit fixture on South Jackson street "Since we've been here next to them it's been nice and quiet, we haven't had any issues."
CASA Latina began a second phase of development, constructing a building adjacent to the current one this month.
"We're planning on being able to help people move past working as a day laborer and help them start their own businesses." says Stern. "We'll have a commercial kitchen in the new place, and [there are] a lot of women who want to start catering or food business, [so] we'll offer entrepreneurial training and more job skills training."
The staff and workers at the Center expressed gratitude for the already tangible improvements of the new location.
"Its been a total change for us" says Stern. [This is] a place that really recognizes peoples humanity and dignity as workers and also shows that people are valued...that the city of Seattle welcomes them. That's really different than being out in a parking lot."