Unconventional cleanup crew

Work: A foundation employs men, some of whom are former convicts and addicts, to keep the city's parks in shape.

August 06, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The work crew descended upon Collington Square Park in East Baltimore yesterday with crisp beige uniforms, sunglasses, boots and stern faces. They fanned out, some wielding weed whackers, others mounting riding mowers or picking up trash.

At first glance, the eight men might have been mistaken for some kind of special forces squad sent by the Baltimore parks department.

But they're not city employees or military commandos. In fact, many are former convicts, addicts or alcoholics who used to hurl bottles onto playgrounds, not spend their days cleaning them up.

The men are enrolled in a program run by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, which the city is paying $300,000 as a contractor to maintain five parks and the 50 urban blocks around them on the city's east side.

It's an unusual relationship that the city entered into last year as a cost-effective method to focus more cleanup efforts on troubled areas, said Kimberley A. Flowers, director of Recreation and Parks.

"This is very important to us, because we consider them to be a supplemental work force for us," said Flowers. "They can fill in the gaps in areas where we can't focus, because of our very scarce resources."

Another benefit is that people with troubled backgrounds -- many of them former addicts living in transitional housing -- receive job training, a modest salary, clothing and help getting their lives back together, said James Piper Bond, president of the foundation.

From a taxpayer's perspective, the money is well spent because the foundation's Project SERVE can employ perhaps twice as many people to clean up parks, alleys and sidewalks as the city could, if the cost of benefits, retirement and equipment is added in, said Matthew Gallagher, director of CitiStat, which monitors city spending and performance.

"It's a good way to stretch our resources," Gallagher said.

Wayne Davis, a 44-year-old former heroin and cocaine addict who drove a riding mower across the park yesterday, sees a more personal benefit to the program.

Davis, who spent about 18 months in prison on drug charges several years ago, said the 40-hour-per-week job keeps him free from drugs and out of trouble. He said his self-respect has risen during the year he has been cleaning the parks, and this has made him a kinder grandparent.

"This program keeps you sober and gives you a chance to use yourself well," said Davis. "If it weren't for this, I'd probably be laying around. But you can't come to work drunk or on drugs. And I feel good about what I'm doing."

Davis and others in the program -- who also clean Johnston Square, Madison Park, Dewees Park and Coldstream Park -- recruit neighbors to help them maintain the parks.

Some neighbors say the results are impressive. A year ago, Collington Square Park was marred by broken bottles, discarded syringes, tall grass, graffiti and a basketball court lacking nets.

"There used to be a lot of paper and garbage everywhere. You couldn't even walk up these steps because of all the broken glass," said Lillie Clark, 68, a neighbor who volunteers to clean up the park. "But now, it's all beautiful, and the kids can play here safely."

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