Beating the odds is a job for many in city

March 01, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Having been born to a woman who had four children by four men and who died when he was 9, having been raised in a high-rise public housing complex notorious for violent crime, having been placed in the care of social workers by a father addicted to crack, having been homeless for most of the last three years, Sean Jessup still managed to avoid a career as a cocaine-and-heroin salesman on the streets of Baltimore.

He tried it once - for 90 days.

He says he stopped before it was too late, before the police arrested him or someone shot him.

Sean turns 21 next week. He's beating the odds. All things considered, his story approaches the miraculous. No hyberbole. Just a fact.

Pardon my perspective: Most of the people in their 20s I've talked to in the last year and a half have criminal records. They have not beaten the odds, and in the post-9/11 world of heightened security and fear about everything, their criminal records make it unlikely they will.

They come out of prison or off the street, expressing an earnest desire to do better and find a job -particularly as they approach the age of 25 or beyond - but background checks keep prospective employers from hiring them. So they become discouraged. Or they go back to the streets.

It's a serious and widespread problem, particularly in Baltimore. Nearly 70 percent of the men and women who come out of Maryland prisons each year return to the city. In recent years, that represents between 7,500 and 8,000 adults.

And half of all inmates released from Maryland's prisons return within three years. That is a costly failure rate we have accepted for too long.

Certainly, for some, criminal behavior dies hard. Addiction doesn't go away just because a criminal defendant does.

But certainly a major reason for the cycle of recidivism is that young men, in particular, face huge obstacles in finding real and sustaining work. That, plus the allure of the street and the promise of fast money, remain huge challenges for Baltimore, and few in public leadership seem inclined to do anything to break this cycle.

In June 2005, I spoke to a 21-year-old ex-offender who seemed to have a lot of promise and a supportive family. The young man wanted to work but could not find a job.

Apparently, he could not resist the street, and the last time I saw his name listed somewhere, it was as a suspect in a homicide.

So now we come to Sean Jessup, an exception to what we expect of young men in Baltimore.

He grew up in poverty, having lived part of his life with his mother and siblings in the old Murphy Homes high-rise in West Baltimore. Later, the family moved to Virginia to live with the father of Sean's little sister.

That man abused his mother, Sean says. One night, he and his mother ran away, hitching a ride with a truck driver. Sean remembers long periods of hunger -only peanut butter and jelly to eat out of a jar, his mother trying to get Sean and his little sister to sleep while their stomachs were growling.

One night, while she lay in bed, Sean's mother had a stroke. That's when his father re-entered his life and took him back to Baltimore.

But Sean's father wasn't much for parenthood. He had other priorities. "He couldn't afford me as well as crack and women," Sean says. "So he took me to Towson, to the [Baltimore County] Department of Social Services."

And that's when Sean went into a series of four foster homes. (His birth mother died a few years later, when Sean was 9.)

I've just compressed a life into a few paragraphs and a parenthetical phrase. The way Sean tells the story, his life was a lot worse than it sounds.

It improved some when he was in foster care. He managed to live in relatively stable environments, attend Baltimore County public schools and, when old enough, take a job at a fast-food restaurant.

His last foster mother adopted him and provided him with a home - she took half of his pay, too - until he was just about finished with high school. He says his adoptive mother put him out and never allowed him back into her home, and Sean remains just a half-credit short of what he needs for his diploma. That's Sean's version of it.

As a result of this, he says, he has spent the past three years without a permanent home, and he has slept on buses and at bus stops when he could not find a place with friends. He has flopped in houses in Baltimore and in Essex. He stays these days with his girlfriend's brother in South Baltimore.

He's hoping to find a place of his own.

To do that, he needs a job that pays better than the $6.25 an hour he made in fast food.

To do that, he needs to become officially employable, with a Social Security card, a birth certificate and a Maryland identification card.

He's working on getting all that.

Getting all that takes time, and it's a hassle.

But it's minor compared to what thousands of other guys his age face because they got into drugs and crime. (His older half-brother is serving a life sentence for his federal conviction as a federal drug kingpin.)

Despite all odds - and conditions that have sent many others to prison - Sean Jessup did all right. He got his Social Security card, and the birth certificate is supposed to arrive in the mail any day. Yesterday, he got a birthday haircut so he'd look good on a job he's hoping to land at a nursing home. All things considered, he's on his way.dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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