It’s never easy to re-enter society upon being released from prison, and even ex-offenders lucky enough to secure a job right away face a challenge few may know about: It can take weeks for their first paycheck to arrive.
In the interim, many face the temptation to chase “fast money” in the streets — and risk a return to the penal system — Rep. Elijah Cummings told a group of reporters Saturday in Upton.
“It’s a vicious cycle we’ve got to figure out how to break,” Cummings said as part of “Connect,” a 3 1/2-hour event sponsored by the Baltimore mayor’s office aimed at exploring ways of reducing violence in the city. “With this program I feel we’re on the road to addressing a lot of [similar] problems people have.”
The program he referred to is the Office of African American Male Engagement, an initiative Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh started last year to expand mentoring and other services aimed at helping black boys and men avoid falling prey to crime and violence.
The event at Furman L.Templeton Elementary School on Pennsylvania Ave. brought 50 local African-American men together with Cummings, Pugh and other community leaders for a roundtable discussion on violence and how to address it.
Dozens of community resource providers then took part in a resource fair at the school, sharing information with visitors on job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, employment opportunities, parent training programs and more.
Pugh called it “a great coming-out for the Office of African-American Male Engagement,” a program that got underway in February.
“People have been asking me all year, ‘What does the Office of African-American Male Engagement do?’” she said. “One of the things that makes me so proud standing here is that we said from the beginning that we’re going to get this right, and we have.”
Led by director Andrey Bundley, the former city high school principal and mayoral candidate, and James Green Jr., who serves as manager of community engagement and education, the group has spent months soliciting ideas in meetings with city residents and community leaders.
They invited some of those residents, and others from the neighborhood around the school, to the roundtable, which was closed to the press.
“These are people who don’t normally find themselves in a space with a congressman or a mayor, and they were able to share their thoughts in that space,” Green said.
At a news conference immediately afterward, Cummings told reporters the group had discussed a range of issues, including the persistent problem of “black-on-black” crime.
“We see so many of our young men killing each other, and so often they’re killing each other over things that should be resolved through some type of mediation,” Cummings said, “or over things that, when other people hear about what they were disputing, they can’t believe that it ended up in death.”
The roundtable, he said, reinforced the idea that many vulnerable young men need better resources — job opportunities, employment training, even transportation to and from work, not to mention mentors who show them care and respect.
He said the name Pugh’s office gave the event — “Connect” — was appropriate because it’s helping connect residents with the many resources that do exist in the city.
More than 40 service organizations then did exactly that.
Representatives from the city Department of Social Services told visitors of their paid job-training programs in cybersecurity, warehouse logistics and weatherization.
Charles Harper, a case manager with Project JumpStart, an initiative of the Job Opportunites Task Force, told about a dozen guests about its paid construction-training program.
And representatives of another nonprofit, Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc., offered counseling on expungement, the process of legally sealing records of criminal charges or convictions, which can ease the process of finding employment or housing.
Jonathan Lacewell, the chief executive of Illuminated Direction, a program supported by Medicaid that provides therapeutic and support services along with life-planning skills, said good long-term planning can reduce a lot of short-term struggle.
“Let’s say someone wants to buy a house, but they don’t realize it takes having a job first, then a savings and budgeting plan,” Lacewell said. “We help people get their priorities in order, and that can reduce the anxiety and depression that can cause people to make bad decisions.”
Jonte Gilmore, 22, of East Baltimore, said he and his brother, 21-year-old Tiree McCall, came looking not for counseling but for “hands-on” possibilities.
They found one at a booth sponsored by Marriott International, where the pair snapped up information on potential work opportunities.
“We’re looking for jobs that can better our lives,” Gilmore said.
Cummings, meanwhile, spoke of developing “sustainable” help for the city’s youth — the kind of support that will last more than a short time — and told Pugh he would support her initiative, said to be one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
“Mayor, I am convinced that if we do [this] right here, this kind of model will spread all over the country,” he said. “I’m so glad to have a partner who considers this to be a No. 1 priority. I’m going to give this everything I’ve got.”