HDI put many welfare clients to work, but is squeezed out of that business


Everyone seemed to love the Human Development Institute: Its students, primarily women trying to move from the welfare rolls to full-time jobs. The Baltimore City office that oversaw its contract. Social workers, whose clients blossomed there. Employers, who grew to depend on the private business for motivated, eager workers.

But HDI is no longer in the business of putting city welfare clients to work under the state's workfare program, Project Independence.

While HDI placed 75 percent of its 1,500 clients in jobs, it fell victim to rigid federal regulations that made it virtually impossible for the small business to turn a profit.

Over the past five years, HDI helped hundreds of clients such as Roberta Harris, a 52-year-old West Baltimore woman who wound up on welfare after breaking up with her husband.

Depressed and sullen, Ms. Harris had little hope that a job-training program could help her when she turned to HDI last spring.

Eight weeks later, the woman who first straggled into HDI wearing dirty jeans and a shirt, wore a spotless white blouse and skirt to her "graduation" from HDI. Once withdrawn and inarticulate, she volunteered to address her classmates during the recent ceremony in the Wheeler Auditorium at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Library. The graduation was HDI's last.

"When I came to HDI, I expected to be just another number in a program," she said in ringing, confident tones. "They taught me, 'You are a 10 regardless of what problems you have.' "

There was no magic behind this transformation. HDI's eight-week program concentrated as much on instilling self-confidence as on writing resumes and surviving job interviews.

The women were required to dress as if coming to work. They were also required to use the library, to read newspapers and to register to vote.

Marian Smallwood, a member of the final class who found a job as a nursing assistant, said HDI's approach was to push students one small step at a time: "So you're ready. Now let's try this."

Ironically, HDI's demise comes when workfare -- requiring welfare recipients to work for their checks -- has become a much-touted social policy.

President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Gov. Bill Clinton, both favor the concept.

But HDI's problems underscore the need to adjust federal regulations to accommodate workfare programs.

The "rules" that tripped up HDI included a federal requirement that clients earn a certain wage, as well as a contractual stipulation they be placed in specific types of jobs.

If HDI failed to meet these and other standards, the company lost a large chunk of its potential reimbursement.

For example, HDI found one woman a $15,000-a-year job as a day-care worker.

She loved the job, but it didn't fit the contract specifications and HDI lost money.

One of its outstanding students is now up for a receptionist's job at a firm with a track record for promoting HDI graduates. But if the woman takes the job, HDI will earn less than it would if she went to work in food service or house cleaning.

Betty Merrill, the seasoned entrepreneur who started HDI, said finding jobs was not a problem, even in the current economic climate. However, finding jobs that met her contractual qualifications, as determined by federal standards, undermined the company.

"We simply said, 'If those are the rules, we can't do it anymore,' " Mrs. Merrill said.

This year, HDI decided it wanted a different contract, one that would guarantee its profit. The city Office of Employment Development agreed, in principle. The proposed $309,000 contract included $23,500 in profit, as well as $33,000 for a mini-van and administrative costs.

City staff didn't balk at the profit, but they objected to the mini-van and administrative costs. Mrs. Merrill said she needed the van to take students to interviews in outlying suburbs. The city, which has less federal dollars this year to administer Project Independence, told her to issue bus tokens.

"In these fiscally tight times, we can't afford to do what we once did," said Barbara Davis of the city's Office of Employment Development. "We can no longer say, 'It's wonderful!' We have to be concerned with the bottom line."

Helen Szablya, a spokesman for the state's Department of Human Resources, summarized HDI's plight this way:

"There are lots of casualties any time you're trying to do something that requires investment. Most people like the idea of Project Independence. But what is the federal government doing to create jobs?"

Was HDI effective? Yes, said social worker Gloria Knox, who sent several of her clients there.

"This is the place that says 'Professional,' " she said, referring to HDI's well-kept headquarters. "What's going to replace it?"

Steven Carruthers, who has hired 25 HDI graduates to clean at Embassy Suites in Hunt Valley, also was a fan.

"People who come to me from HDI are instilled with a drive to get into the work force, to get ahead," said Mr. Carruthers. "They not only give the ladies the determination to make it in the work force, they give them an overall feeling of confidence."

At the final graduation, more than 40 women from previous classes came back to be named to the HDI Hall of Fame, recognizing them for their advancement in the private sector.

One by one, they crossed the stage, identifying themselves by their names, jobs and years in the work force.

A utility supervisor. A manager for a cookie store. Patient services coordinator. Nursing assistant. A 911 operator.

"I just know I'm going to get a job," Ms. Harris said during her impromptu speech during the ceremony on Aug. 3. "I had forgotten how to laugh. Even though you've been pushing me -- thanks, anyway."

Mrs. Merrill is sorry she will no longer be the one pushing people like Roberta Harris. But she believes that many of those on the city's welfare rolls will find a way out, if not through HDI.

"If there's one thing I'd like to come out from all this, it's that these are people who want to work, people who will get ahead," Mrs. Merrill said.

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