Teaching people how to fish

November 04, 1995|By Antero Pietila

THE NEIGHBORHOOD around Oswego Avenue underscores the inherent conflicts between order and lawlessness, hope and despair in Baltimore.

Even before noon on a sunny weekday, drug addicts and dealers swarm like roaches in the corridor between Park Heights and Greenspring avenues. This seems incongruous because working families still are in the majority in the tree-lined Oswego Avenue rowhouses.

One morning last week, a sizable crowd gathered in the 2600 block of Oswego Avenue. There was singing and jubilation. The mayor was present. So were dignitaries from Washington -- and television cameras. The occasion was the the completion of the first eight rehabilitated units in Oswego Mall, a 35-townhouse public housing project constructed in 1969 that had gone to seed.

What made the celebration noteworthy were women and men wearing red t-shirts that proclaimed them to be ''Determinators.'' They were in the city Housing Authority's Step-Up program, a pioneering effort that trains public-housing residents to do construction-related jobs. Oswego Mall is their training ground.

Six Step-Up trainees received their certificates at last week's celebration. There were cheers when the crowd was told that four of those graduates had been offered permanent jobs at a minimum of $9.40 an hour.

''My whole mission here is to teach people how to fish,'' Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said, alluding to a parable about how skills -- and not handouts -- contribute to an individual's self-sufficiency.

Eighteen months ago, Baltimore was the second city in the nation to establish a Step-Up program to try to lift public-housing tenants from chronic unemployment and poverty. More than 800 residents applied for the 50 training slots.

Onto the payroll

As of September, 45 of those who completed the program were employed at an average wage of $8.50 an hour. Only two were unemployed. ''The early results are very good and very encouraging,'' says Samuel B. Little, who is in charge of the program. Considering that only 22 percent of the participants of the first class did not receive some type of public assistance, Step-Up is likely to remove many graduates from the dole.

But this training program, which is an unusual partnership between the city and a dozen building-trades unions, is expensive to run and may fall victim to budget cuts. That would be a pity because Step-Up clearly shows a lot of promise.

Another training program had a celebration recently. The Center for Employment Training, a California-based private, non-profit corporation, expanded its local division in the old Hendler Ice Cream building at 1100 East Baltimore Street.

The center, which has a contract with the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, its ''Baltimore Works'' program and the city Private Industry Council, is widely regarded as one of the best training programs in the nation. Its goal is to foster self-sufficiency. ''It can be done'' is the motto. Its course offerings run from automated office skills to medical occupations. Testimonials by its graduates were touching.

''I thank God for Baltimore Works,'' said Marie Daley, who one day found herself laid off after 22 years at London Fog. The center retrained her and she now works in the human-resources office at Liberty Medical Center.

Diane Burgess, a mother of three who has seven grandchildren, was laid off after six months at Procter & Gamble. After retraining, she now has a $6.50-an-hour job as a receptionist.

''What CET means to me is a steady paycheck,'' she said.

=1 Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

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