ACORN helps poor to get jobs, housing

October 05, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

On a sunny afternoon, Thomas L. Grey was fuming over the band of low-income job-seekers who had stormed the lobby of his construction company. Carrying placards, they shouted for jobs and shouted for him to show his face.

"Who do we want?"

"Tom Grey!"

"When do we want him?"

"Now!"

Mr. Grey, president of Oak Contracting Corp., vowed to himself not to deal with the protesters, who wore paper buttons emblazoned with the acronym ACORN -- for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "I'm a businessman," recalled later. "I'm not used to doing business that way."

But now, two months after the protest, he is doing business with ACORN. He has hired two members as laborers, and another as a carpenter. He's also agreed to notify the group of future job openings.

Chalk up one for ACORN, a 100,000-strong national group that organizes low-income people and sometimes uses boisterous, confrontational tactics to change the way business is done with the poor.

Since opening shop in Baltimore early last year, ACORN's Maryland chapter has created friends and enemies -- and some who are both.

"I told them I would give them a trial period, for when they would provide people for us and I would give them an exclusive for job postings," Mr. Grey said. "Because I think it's the right thing to do. Because I think their heart's in the right place."

But some skeptics say ACORN's tactics could hurt their cause and the city.

"I suppose there's a time and place for everything," said Carl W. Struever, president of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., another contractor targeted by ACORN. "The problem is that business already is moving with their feet. We need to encourage business to stay in Baltimore. You want to be sure you don't chase everyone away."

Founded in 1970, ACORN boasts of gains nationally over the years. It has established ties with North Carolina-based NationsBank, which joined with the organization to develop a mortgage program for low- and moderate-income families. It also has met with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros.

Through its 27 state groups and 800 local chapters, the Chicago-based organization has used most of its $3.5 million revenue from dues to back low- and moderate-income people on issues such as taxes, health insurance and utility rate increases.

For their dues of $5 monthly, members are promised an independent, grass-roots-based commitment to their problems.

In Baltimore, the group, which claims about 600 dues-paying members, has focused on jobs and public housing issues.

ACORN has drawn the ire of local housing officials and public housing tenant association leaders over its bid to assume the role of tenant advocate in the Cherry Hill complex in South Baltimore. It aims to become a force in all the city's public housing by recruiting residents as members.

But Doris Smith, president of the Cherry Hill Tenants Association, says ACORN organizers are misleading people into thinking membership in the group will lead to jobs and better housing. Low-income Baltimoreans who have joined ACORN, she says, are "being used. . . . We have some weak people they prey on."

Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, criticized ACORN for getting Cherry Hill residents "riled up" over broken faucets while the development is undergoing major renovations.

"Nationally, we're very much in line with their philosophy and concepts," he said. "Locally, it's a mixed feeling. While their intentions are admirable, truly admirable, their means have been questionable and downright abrasive at times."

But ACORN members in Cherry Hill say the group can persuade the Housing Authority to improve conditions.

Although housing remains a key issue for ACORN, which operates from a terrace-level office at 2013 N. Charles St., the group turned much of its attention to jobs during the summer. And ACORN leaders say businesses are realizing they must take the group seriously.

"Anytime a new organization comes out, especially one like ACORN, which is about building power, you have to pound and pound and pound on the door before there's a crack. And then, finally, you're in," said Kelley Collings, the head organizer for Maryland ACORN.

Every week, 10 to 14 members pile into compact cars and go unannounced to one or two employers -- from downtown towers to suburban industrial parks.

Seeking jobs for unemployed members, they target the top 25 construction companies as listed by the Baltimore Business Journal.

Some job-seekers are high school graduates. Others are dropouts who want to turn their lives around. And there are those like Eric Funderburk, who says it is difficult for someone with a criminal record to get a good job. "Since I've been home, I've been looking for a job, and things have been frustrating," said Mr. Funderburk, 23, the father of two young children. He recently finished serving a short jail term for assault.

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