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The concept landed in Kansas City in 1994, when the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce opened a CAN Center near the day laborers' pickup spot. One of the first things the center did was offer the men a toilet. Since then, the center has survived on meager grants and donations.
The center remains a place for day laborers to wait for work. The warehouselike space is equipped with a stove, a shower, bathrooms, lockers, a washer and a dryer, and a coffee machine. Most days, workers bring food to share — tortillas, avocados and green beans, all piled into cardboard boxes. While they wait for work, the men sit around a table playing games, the sound of slamming dominoes popping in the air like the crackle of a fire.
A sprawling window connects the day laborers' living room to the office of the two Kansas City policemen who work out of the CAN Center, Matt Tomasic and Octavio "Chato" Villalobos. A portrait of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Mexican Revolution, hangs on the cops' ever-open door.
Villalobos, 38, is tall and husky with a heavy brow and warm, dark eyes. He grew up on the West Side in the 1980s and remembers how he feared the cops long before he became one.
"When I was growing up, you were scared of the police officers," he says on a recent afternoon in his office. "There was a sense that officers despised people in this community because we had the projects, we had people with lower incomes and immigrant families."
Villalobos has been stationed at the CAN Center for almost five years. Every morning, around 6 a.m., he and Tomasic drive up and down the neighborhood in an unmarked vehicle — one the whole neighborhood recognizes — to check for broken windows and busted locks. On cold days, they patrol school-bus stops and give coats to kids who need them. They meet with West Side merchants to hear how business is. Then it's back to the center, where they monitor and talk to the day laborers. Afternoon programs at the center include STD testing, meetings for addicts, and flu-shot administration.
Across the communal space, just past a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, is the cramped office of CAN Executive Director Lynda Callon. Cardboard boxes, filled with anything that could prove useful to someone in need, litter the nearly impenetrable room. Plastic grocery bags packed with clothes and condoms decorate the office like throw pillows. A 50-pound sack of flour, to one day be used to make tortillas, sags lifelessly against her desk. A cactus piñata waits in the corner for the birthday of a neighborhood kid.
Along with a steering committee made up of people from the neighborhood (including Oasis owner Romo), Callon has been running the center full time for more than a decade. She makes $15,000 a year.
"In the beginning, the neighborhood wanted the CAN Center, but they didn't want the police officers," she says. "It was really hard to get them to call the police, period."
But in policing the neighborhood and running the center, Callon and the officers have consciously ignored immigration status. Over time, they say, West Side immigrants slowly offered their trust in exchange.
"Eventually, the neighbors would tell me things ... and we would be able to pass that information on to the police officers," Callon says of CAN's first years.
And after a while, she says, residents began to take their issues directly to the cops. The more time the cops spent there, the more information they gathered — at least until October 24.