Remaking lives: Hard-core jobless try new mind-set

March 19, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

An employer who wants to hire has just left the Baltimore rowhouse classroom where a half-dozen men are in job training. As soon as he leaves, the bickering begins.

Who will screen their applications? the men demand. Is the pay enough? Would the job be a career move or a stopgap?

"I don't understand why there is so much tension," trainer Philip Merrill finally says in exasperation. "If you know everything about the job world, I put to you one simple question: Why don't you have a job?"

"Because I was a junkie," one man says bluntly. "That's why I lost my job."

Another crumples his application into a ball.

"I ain't jumping on the first train going out," he says. "For one thing, I got an attitude problem. He said he wants somebody without an attitude problem. I might mess up."

This is Project Revamp, a pilot job-training program for 'u unemployed black men. The training focuses not on welding, computerprogramming or any specific craft. Instead, it targets attitudes and behavior for adjustment.

What has kept these men from stable, working lives has little to do with job skills. It is more basic even than lack of education. Their failures are rooted in decaying families and drug addictions, in deep-seated anger and a fundamental lack of faith in themselves.

"You have to address the mental and psychological barriers to work," says George Merrill, co-founder of the Human Development Institute, the family-owned job training firm that runs the program. "You can do all the skill training in the world, but the ground on which these seeds are sown will be barren."

Project Revamp is played out mostly around a table at HDI's East 25th Street headquarters. The daily routine includes role-playing, resume-writing, mock interviews, guest speakers, library visits, field trips to businesses -- and plenty of probing talk.

The two-month program began in January, at the dawn of a new administration that has pledged to put America back to work, partly through massive outlays for job training. If Project Revamp can move men from street corners to jobs, it will be one small sign that a committed America can develop discarded human potential.

Thirteen men -- all African-Americans in their 20s and 30s, all chronically jobless and mostly homeless -- walked through Project Revamp's door. They didn't all make it. One had severe mental problems. Another was frustrated by illiteracy. A third fell back into drug use. Several disappeared after a day or two.

Only seven managed -- some shakily -- to graduate.

"It helped me a lot that people really cared," says James Batchelor, one of the survivors. "I thought I was at the end of the road, just another statistic roaming around as a druggie. I realize the opportunity I have, and I'm not going to let anything happen."

Still, success is by no means assured. The Sun visited Project Revamp over its two-month run to chronicle the men's journey in search of new lives. This is the story of how they made a start.

Jan. 11

It begins with names. Trainer Ron Samuels, a lean, bearded black man in his early 40s, asks each man to describe himself positively with an alliterative adjective.

They hem and haw, scan a dictionary, finally choose.

Robert, in his hand-me-down red sweater and white shirt, is Regal. Tony, a sullen North Carolinian, is Terrific. Larry, a garrulous Washingtonian, is Legendary.

Jeff is stuck. Nothing positive comes to mind.

"Jazzy Jeff, I don't know," he says.

"Genius Jeff," Regal Robert offers.

Legendary Larry jumps in: Genius doesn't start with a J.

"Well, put cotton in my mouth and shut me up," Regal Robert says, good-naturedly enough.


:. "I'm not Joyful Jeff, not yet," Jeff says.

Project Revamp's house rule is: "Treat this like a job." That means be punctual, neat, responsible, polite, flexible, consistent and never profane six hours a day Monday through Friday, with breaks for lunch and smokes in the alley.

Unlike most jobs, Revamp offers free lunch and transportation. The staff helps with resumes and job interviews. By design, the program offers no other inducements.

The goal is to help the men find jobs that pay $6 an hour or more with benefits. But HDI president Betty Merrill makes no guarantees.

"If they know the program gives them things, they'll come for the wrong reasons. I want them to come because they really want to do something with their lives," she says.

Ms. Merrill, a feisty black educator and businesswoman, founded HDI in 1986 with husband George, a white lawyer who left a swanky downtown firm to work with the poor. Until recently, HDI trained welfare mothers for work.

Despite the crowds of idlers on city street corners, filling a Revamp class is a struggle. The staff posts handbills at agencies, and class members spread the word in the streets, but prospects only trickle in to the 25th Street rowhouse.

"I'm not sure everybody on the corner wants to get off the corner," Ms. Merrill says. "I think society wants them off the corner, but I'm not sure that's what they want."

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