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Hoping to find work on a summer sidewalk

  • Story Highlights
  • Several men stand on Atlanta sidewalk hoping someone will offer them work
  • Nearby home improvement store holds promise of jobs from shoppers
  • Unemployment rate is 9.6 percent in Atlanta metro area, up from 5.6 percent last year
  • Construction sector employment is down 17.7 percent in Georgia
By Zach Pontz
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- At the edge of a shopping center in midtown Atlanta, Georgia, several men have turned waiting into an art. They stand idly in the hopes of getting work.

Several men stand outside an Atlanta shopping center hoping someone will offer them work.

Several men stand outside an Atlanta shopping center hoping someone will offer them work.

To avoid the throbbing heat of the summer sun, some shift in and out of a shaded grassy area.

With the prospect of possible work flowing from the big-box home improvement store inside the center, these men hope homeowners or contractors shopping there will hire them for a day's -- or even a few hours' -- work.

The recession has pushed the U.S. unemployment rate to more than 9 percent, and it is being felt from boardrooms in New York all the way down to this street corner in the Southeast.

Men who used to find work by hanging out on sidewalks are now struggling as construction work has slowed. Meanwhile, others who might never have imagined looking for work this way have joined them.

"I was laid off a year and a half ago," Steve Butler says. "I was making $35,000 a year. I was used to having $500 in my pocket, getting off work, going out for dinner." Now he can't find a job.

Butler, a college graduate who lives in nearby Marietta, first started coming out here three years ago when a few co-workers at the warehouse where he was employed suggested it might make a good side job.

"Man, it's really hard right now. I didn't realize it. There's no money out there. I can go to the labor employment office and make $50 for eight hours' work if I'm lucky, or come here and make $80 [and not pay taxes] every once in awhile."

James Woods also bears the boredom and idleness of the sidewalk. A small-framed 47-year-old, he is homeless and out of work.

Living at the Metro Atlanta Taskforce for the Homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta, Woods relies on temporary construction work to live but is increasingly unable to find steady employment in a city being hit hard by the recession.

"A year ago I'd get work two, three times a week standing here," Woods says. "But now, maybe once every two weeks if I'm lucky. ... There's no work at the temp agencies either."

Ben Wood, 45, also stakes out the sidewalks looking for work. "It was booming before the economy, but now I can't get work," he said.

Michael Scott, the branch manager at Doraville Able Body Labor, a temporary employment agency, says demand for workers from local construction companies is down roughly 30 percent. He turns away three quarters of job seekers each day.

In May, unemployment hit 9.6 percent in the Atlanta metropolitan area, according to the Georgia Department of Labor, slightly above the state and national averages.

Compare that to the 5.6 percent unemployed in the city at the same time a year ago.

Atlanta's expansion in recent years relied heavily on the construction industry. From 1993 to 2003, the sector saw nearly 70 percent employment growth, according to the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

With vast shopping plazas and housing communities mushrooming, the area was an ideal place to find work. But now, as money has stopped flowing to finance these endeavors, homes and commercial projects remain half-finished.

As of May, employment is down 17.7 percent in the last year in Georgia in the construction sector, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. The stalled industry has created tougher competition for those seeking work, including the men on the midtown Atlanta sidewalk.

Stan Dawson, executive director of Crossroads Community Ministries in Atlanta, says his soup kitchen has seen a steady uptick in traffic, going from feeding 185-200 mouths per night last year to upward of 220 per night now.

"That's not a huge difference," Dawson says, "but if it continues to increase it would be notable."

More telling is that the program saw a 25 percent spike in traffic in the second half of last year alone, many of them women with children who couldn't afford to live on their own anymore.

Dawson also says the program's crisis hotline has been flooded with calls, not from the homeless, but from ordinary people with mounting financial problems.

"That was a real attention getter for me. People know we only work with the homeless," he says.

If the effects of the economic crisis hurt mainstream Americans, they can mean the difference between eating or begging; sleeping on a bench or in a bed for the night. But those who are forced to make the choice between bad and worse say they have no choice.

"It gets depressing. I'm used to having some cash. I try not to get down about it," Butler says.

"If you stop, what you gonna do," James Woods asks. "You're already homeless; you just gotta keep going. Whatever happens, happens."

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