Human trafficking does not depend on guns and muscles. Usually, it works by threats.
Sylvia knew from the time she was a kid that she was an American citizen. Her father was born in the US. Even in the years when her American father and her Hispanic mother were living in Tijuana, they hung on to their citizenship. Their only daughter was an American protected by the US Constitution.
The massive stroke that killed her dad struck in a life-changing instant. For the two grieving women everything was suddenly uncertain. Nothing was prepared, nothing was planned, nothing could stay the same.
Sylvia and her mom held on to a sacred promise that mom was married to an American and I was a US citizen. They made the decision and began a long journey both geographically and a more complex and difficult journey through the United States Immigration bureaucracy.
It took years. It dragged them, with no particular politeness, through injustice and battered them with bureaucratic arrogance, ignorance and indifference.
They met the challenges with patience, unwavering persistence, and careful self-control. Almost grudgingly, the bureaucrats cut them loose and five years ago they went across the broad free land to northern California and found our little city.
Sylvia came to Fort Bragg in 2013 and liked it very much. Maybe we should all take a moment to see it the way she sees it from the perspective that she has had. What price do you put on immense safety, on such a wide and basic assurance of personal dignity? How much is a friendly, busy library worth? A clean street? The warm welcoming coffee house?
She loved it. We all do.
In her case, it was enough to love to brave whatever staying here might entail. For Sylvia, it was a tougher struggle than it would have been for some of us.
Silvia is not in any way a flamboyant person, but in the way of a small town you probably all know her. Probably not by name. By her very constancy, she stands out a little. Invariably she has a smile. She owns a quiet, personal grace that might have come from learning patience in a hard school. She has a palpable personal strength and formidable competence, delicately and completely controlled by bone-deep cultural wisdom that is filled with joy — somehow old world and at the same time unique to her.
In a word, she is a gem.
She has a long-term boyfriend from whom she is basically inseparable and for years together they have negotiated the groceries and the appointments of life in Fort Bragg as a team. Mostly on foot. They are always gentle and always on the side of courtesy. Of course, you would know them.
A few years ago a coalition of the privileged came together as a legal board of directors in charge of themselves and Hospitality House and whatever money the city would give them.
They scored big under the fierce and focused direction of Anna Shaw, of unfortunate memory, by taking over the famous Old Coast Hotel and converting it to a homeless service center.
In a ferocious railroading of the City Council, backed by the full weight of the City Administration, Hospitality House acquired one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the city. They never spent a dime of their own institutional funds. The money came exclusively from the feds on the city's annual allotment, in the form of a “forgivable” super low-interest rate loan.
An indignant city exploded in political reaction and the subsequent elections were so charged with controversy that the City Council that had voted in the deal was wiped out. The City Manager fell, the City Council fell, the City Attorney fell, but out of the wreckage Lynelle Johnson and her socialite friends got a world-class hotel for free. Ever since they have piously labored to improve and expand the temple of dependency. The hotel came with a café.
While the battle for and against the Old Coast deal raged, the café within the Hotel was touted loudly by Hospitality Center advocates as a mighty engine of empowerment.
It would be like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The homeless could serve coffee, maybe donuts. The homeless, by their own initiative, could make some cash and therefore not be homeless. It was a unique idea and very engaging. Using the café for training and income was put forward forcefully as a major goal of the Old Coast Hotel deal.
They got the Hotel for the federal grant money ok. But for years the café did not happen.
Eventually, it got to be pretty embarrassing. The rub was that Hospitality House couldn’t staff the café. Hiring regular people made bad optics with all the unemployed sucking up funds in the other room.
The empty café was already somehow in debt and there was no likelihood of immediate profitability. It was a problem. At some point MCHC actually got a grant from the federal money gods at SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), specifically to open the café, and since the local social workers are not psychologically capable of not taking money, they were really up the creek because it still wasn't happening.
Other than the café and the few rooms upstairs, counting and processing, that is all they do at the Hospitality Center.
Their job is to convert “applicants” into “clients.” Making clients is the means by which MCHC acquires its county and federal money. Recruiting clients is the prime directive.
Being a client doesn't get you anything as such, but you can smoke in the garden and be on the same lists you could be on without the social workers.
There is sometimes coffee. The busy workers get paid for doing the processing and the numbers flow like evaporating dew into the county system where the multimillions lie.
As a practical matter, as soon the applicant qualifies and becomes a client Hospitality Center gets money. Social workers must be paid. The rules about who can be a client originate with the county.
Unfortunately for the Café, working is one thing that tends to make you flatly not eligible for county subsidies and grievously disrupts a logical and systematic progression into a decent enrollment in the subsidized economy.
If you are homeless and you work at all you pay a steep price in benefits. Taking even a little job quickly becomes a life decision.
When you enter the system headquartered at Hospitality Center you learn at the feet of the service providers very explicitly that if you work even a little, even part time, you won't qualify for subsidies, benefits or vouchers.
So with a whole building full of out-of-work desperate homeless people, Hospitality Center could not find anyone who would/could work at the café without suffering financial penalties.
Work equals no bennies, either for the client or the Center.
The café was stuck in this limbo for a couple of years. But Sylvia, who had begun living in one of the upstairs rooms at Hospitality Center (the Old Coast Hotel) kept advocating for the café to open.
It was an obvious opportunity. A way out? Who knows how it would eventually work out. She was willing to try. She could do the work, she would do it. She pushed for weeks and then for months. After MCHC got the SAMSHA grant, they had to do something. Money is money. They weren’t going to give it back.
Sylvia was the answer.
They gave her a gig. Not a job. Silvia is here with a legal visa that doesn't permit her to work and Sylvia was trying very hard to work. Or to find a place to be a part of Fort Bragg.
What was standing in her personal way was not an unwillingness to work but everything else.
Objectively, she is more competent, trustworthy and conscientious than most of the rest of the city. Everybody — literally everybody — likes her.
The administration at Hospitality Center, in a vaulting insight, reasoned that (in their words), 'If we pay Sylvia, it's illegal. So she has to work for free'.”
MCHC promised her a reduction in her rent and put her to work in the café two days a week, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. No pay.
Paul Katzaff of Thanksgiving Coffee came down and gave her some intensive training on pulling an espresso shot. I've had the same lesson. Believe me, Paul has it down pat. Zero-to-Superbarista in one lesson.
The café was opened.
The solution seemed great for everyone. Sylvia has a big jar for tips and she has their promise to reduce her rent in the room upstairs, although that is still only a promise. But the café does not pay her. And that’s what human trafficking is.
Did you think it was something that happens in a slave ship? A garment factory where workers are chained? It's that too, but mostly it’s the control of people for profit by threat of exposure to the cops.
It happens everywhere. It works great. It happened here. The definition of slavery is very easy to remember. Hard work, no pay. That’s exactly what Sylvia gets.
February 8th, 2019 interview by Sylvia's friend Kristina:
Kristina:"Tell me about the café program, Sylvia, are you still in it?”
Sylvia: “What a joke, what program? I don’t know anything about a program.”
Kristina: “How are you paid for hours worked in the café, Sylvia?”
Sylvia: “I'm not, I only get cash tips sometimes and now [I’m being] told to pay taxes on the tips. Paul collects the money and it seems less than what I saw and then I'm accused of it being short but Mari counts it and she is over.”
Kristina: “How much do you get an hour?”
Kristina: “How many days and hours is the café open?”
Sylvia: “ 9:00 am – 2:30 pm, two days a week and I work them both.”
Kristina: “What are your job duties?”
Sylvia: “Everything the manager they hired [David] used to do: open, close, supervise, inventory, order, run cash register, deal with customers, train, create specialty drinks, complaints, stock, clean.” (David quit because of the working conditions being so screwed up.)
Kristina: “What are Mari’s job duties?” [Mari is paid staff, a social worker, and doesn’t seem to know much of anything and is really scatterbrained half the time. — Interviewer's observation.]
Sylvia: “She drops in occasionally one or two times a day and just stands around.”
Kristina: “Is Mari your supervisor?”
Sylvia: “Yes, the whole time.”
Kristina: “How many hours have you worked in 2018?
Sylvia: "389 hours worked."
Kristina: “How many hours in 2019?”
Sylvia: "99 hours worked. I asked for a new time record and was told they are not having me record time anymore. Mari said she will do it and gives me a paper that has set hours that I report to work on it.” [In researching a beginning manager running a café in this area, Sylvia should be receiving a comparative salary of about $32,000/year — interviewer observation]
Sylvia is currently and has been tracking her own time records.
Judy Valadao writes:
Sylvia’s husband has corrected some of the statements Rex made in his story. Sylvia does not have a long-term boyfriend, she is married to a local gentleman and has been for several years. Sylvia is here on a visitor’s visa. I believe the Café is a training facility so people can transition from homelessness into the job market with experience in this line of work. I hope this is what happens for Sylvia and her husband. In the meantime, they do have a roof over their heads and the husband is looking for work while Sylvia works/trains at the Café. I am happy that this situation was brought up and has people talking about it. Perhaps someone knows how this couple can be helped so Sylvia can get a job and be paid for the work she does. She sounds like a hard worker and is willing to do what it takes in order to have a better life.