“Me Against Me”
Early one spring morning in his mother’s three-bedroom house, 36-year-old Derrick Steele wakes up and prepares to go to class for the first time in almost 20 years. He pulls a plaid shirt and some old carpenter jeans over his tired frame, which still looks football field-ready despite the drug habits that once consumed him. When dressed, he tiptoes past his new baby boy, who sleeps on the air mattress at his feet. Steele kisses his mother who, in the final, silent days of her fight against throat cancer, rests in the next room.
He eats the egg sandwich and potatoes his girlfriend made him and walks the half-mile to the bus stop to wait for southbound No. 17, the first of the three buses he’ll take to his final destination. At an old, converted tobacco packaging plant just outside downtown, the City of Durham is offering men like him three days of instruction on how to get jobs with the promise of employment thereafter. The program’s principal supporters, City Manager Patrick Baker, police Chief Steve Chalmers and Mayor Bill Bell, believe that one way to ameliorate Durham’s notorious crime problem is to usher these men into mainstream society, just as the men on their way to class believe that steady work is their ticket out of Durham’s illicit margins.
Steele lives on a precipice where he constantly struggles with urges to drink, hustle and get high, which could push him tumbling over the edge. He has convictions for misdemeanor assault on a female and drug possession that have made it easy for employers to pass him over and, consequently, harder for him to do what’s right. His mother, Mary Steele Bishop, has always been there with food and a place to stay, relieving some of his financial burdens, but now she is dying.
Steele sees Project Strike, the Durham jobs initiative, as a way out. But Strike has faced challenges since its inception. Dwight Bagley, a member of the original class that met in December, was arrested and charged in a gang-related shooting in Hillsborough the day before he started work as a city laborer. The pilot program initially designed for young people with gang affiliations–intended to operate in secret at first–was suddenly splashed across the pages of The Herald-Sun. Bagley became its poster child–for some observers an unfortunate symbol of what can happen when you take a chance on black men with troubled pasts.
Bagley’s arrest was the most public of Strike’s troubles, but the difficulties hardly ended there. There were never enough jobs to meet applicant interest, and leaders have fallen short of their goal of employing even 10 people. The private sector hasn’t shown enough interest to hire anyone. Baker did provide four city jobs, but he chose not to appropriate a budget for the program. Instead, employees in human resources, the police department and the employment office have added Project Strike duties to their already heavy workloads. The lines of communication between them are tangled and, in some cases, nonexistent. And their roles in the program are often more improvised than planned.
Two days after the Bagley story broke, Baker defended the project before the City Council, which until then had no direct knowledge of the city’s newest attempt to abate crime. He told members that he had personally chosen Bagley as an influential figure in Durham’s gang underworld. He decided that Bagley, who was convicted of second-degree murder at age 16, was the kind of person the city should be helping if it was serious about ending lawlessness. Most of the council members commended Baker’s efforts despite the program’s first major setback. Thomas Stith III, on the other hand, made a bid to suspend admissions to the program until there was a complete understanding of how applicants were screened, selected and placed. No one on the council backed Stith’s proposal, and six months later, the flawed processes that he highlighted still exist.
If Bagley’s arrest provoked concern at City Hall, it roused enthusiasm in Strike’s target population and beyond. A program conceived for gang members attracted a broader segment of Durham’s disenfranchised society. “Plenty of nights me and him sat on the block and got high,” Steele, who was never in a gang, says of Bagley. “I figured if they could help him, they could help me.” Steele wasn’t alone in that regard. Word of mouth, which had already begun to spread, traveled even faster after Bagley’s arrest. In a testament to the number of people eager to exit street life, applications poured in. Strike opened its doors, and by the time Steele walked through them in April, almost anybody was welcome.
Now leaders are faced with running a program well beyond the scope of what they ever intended. A program that was formed for 10 people now has 150 in the pipeline. The additional applicants have compounded the city’s disorganization, but even without them, saving the likes of Dwight Bagley and Derrick Steele isn’t easy for a strapped municipal government, especially when there are few jobs to go around. All but a handful of the Strike hopefuls are learning these lessons the hard way.
Derrick Steele came of age in the 1980s in and around McDougald Terrace, Durham’s oldest and largest public housing project. He reached adolescence about the time that cocaine infiltrated America’s slums, and from his living room he saw the drug culture take hold. “I used to sit around and watch them snort powder,” he says of his relatives and neighbors. “Then they started cooking it up.” It wasn’t long before their habits became his curiosities. “Every time they turned around, me and my brother would sneak some.”
Dope fed a community-wide enterprise. Steele started off as a cabbie of sorts. As one of the few guys in the neighborhood with a vehicle, he would chauffeur dealers from one hand-off to the next in exchange for marijuana or crack cocaine. Eventually he rented out his car, saving him the hours spent riding around and freeing up time to get high, often with his mother. The steady supply of bartered drugs led to his addiction. “If you grew up in this project, everybody had a piece of it,” he says. “It became a part of us.”
Steele eventually turned to armed robbery. He would trail pushers for days until he knew where they stashed their packages, weapons and cash. When he had internalized the rhythm of their movements, he’d pounce with a loaded .45-caliber pistol and sarcastically proclaim, “Selling drugs is against the law. Give it up.”
By McDougald Terrace standards, a stick-up man lived lavishly, but Steele’s existence was resolutely middle class. Through most of his capers, he held steady jobs as a truck driver, an auto maintenance worker, even a school bus driver. At his peak, he had a seven-year marriage, two step-kids, a four-door sedan, an SUV and a three-bedroom house on the east side of town. But his reality was precarious. “I was addicted to crack,” he says. “Every day–all day. I took it to work.” He stayed in that house four months before he caught his wife in bed with his best friend and whipped them both with a stick, earning one of the misdemeanor convictions that has made his job search more difficult. Afterward, he moved back in with his mother.
Despite all his transgressions, Steele hasn’t had any major brushes with the law. He’s never been to prison or been charged or convicted of anything more than a misdemeanor. “A lot of things I did by myself,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about being snitched on.”
But he represents well the men whom the city of Durham wants to assimilate. About 10 years ago, he was one prudent decision away from a murder charge. Steele and some of his cohorts decided to go after a rival dealer in a dispute over money. When Steele went home to grab his gun, he thought better of the reprisal. Three of his buddies didn’t and sprayed a front porch at the old Few Gardens projects with more than a dozen bullets. One struck and killed Shaquana Atwater, a toddler sitting next to her mother. The murder and subsequent trial galvanized outrage across Durham and showcased the city’s latent drug culture.
Only when Steele was nearly killed in an attempted robbery a few years later did he take steps to retreat from the streets. Seeing a gun in his face helped him put down his own weapon, though not the cocaine or marijuana. He used and peddled off and on until about a year ago when he met Xaviera Spencer, a churchgoing 24-year-old transplant from Washington who Steele calls the only woman who’s ever stolen his heart.
Spencer left Seattle in January of last year to escape her own demons and moved in with her sister in an East Durham apartment. When she met Steele four months later, she had already established roots in the community, particularly at a small evangelical black church.
She also found a home at the Durham County library. On her many walks there from the bus stop, she passed a recycling center where Steele was working at the time. Statuesque and graceful, Spencer caught the eye of many of the workers there, Steele included. He often thought that she sauntered by with her nose in the air, but one day he mustered the courage to approach her.
He gave her the number at his mother’s house, where he was staying at the time. On the afternoon Spencer phoned, Steele boyishly shouted, “Mamma, mamma, she called me,” and jumped about the house in delight. “I was excited about that,” he says. “But I didn’t know she was as spiritual as she is.”
Based on their divergent pursuits at the time they met–Spencer was chasing salvation while Steele was after more earthly things–they had an unlikely chemistry. “He told me that he used to be in the streets,” Spencer says. “He told me that he would drink a beer every day … I found out he had kids. My intent was to leave him alone. But I was attracted to his heart. He’s a good person.”
She alludes to Steele’s compassion, perhaps his most redeeming quality. Existence on the edge has bred in him a deep empathy for other people’s hardships. He’s not far enough removed from his own struggles to confidently tell anyone that a reprieve is near or even possible, but he’s there to share the burden and offer comfort. It’s never more evident than when a hopeful smile overtakes his battered visage. Or when he reads one of the inspirational poems that he has composed in his darkest moments.
Shortly after he met Spencer, Steele concluded that nothing could inspire his own transformation the way a new baby would. He had three children by two other women, but he hadn’t fostered them or seen them in recent memory. A new child, he thought, could turn his life around. So he set out to get Spencer pregnant.
“He was trying to aim,” Spencer says of his efforts in bed. She wasn’t as ardent to conceive, but before long she sensed that Steele had hit the mark. A test from the dollar store confirmed her suspicion.
The two moved into a rooming house near McDougald Terrace. Its proximity to Steele’s old haunts made it easy for him to backslide. He started peddling dope again, and convinced Spencer to help when he could. “She would hold it while we walked in case the police came up,” he says. He also tried to persuade her to get high with him, though she resisted. “We actually split up because she was going to church and I wasn’t,” Steele says. “I was trying to pull her into my life, and she was trying to pull me into hers.” He kicked her out and left her to rely on friends for a place to sleep. But after a month apart, he decided he was in love with her.
Three days a week he visited Spencer at the Church of the Apostolic Revival, an old brick building with a wood-paneled sanctuary, blue upholstered chairs and Plexiglas pulpit. Steele piqued the suspicion of the protective church brothers and playful children, but was able to spend more time with Spencer. At some point his trips to church became less about courtship and more about a belief that the Lord could save him from the streets. He’d always found church folk to be too controlling, but he slowly found deliverance among them. When they asked him if he wanted to be baptized and born again, Steele agreed.
He and Spencer eventually reconnected and moved into Steele’s mother’s house. Their son, Ryo Decari Steele, whose middle name has its roots in the church’s acronym, was born on the Ides of March.
Newfound faith, love and family had the new father feeling ambitious. When someone in the neighborhood told him that Durham was promising jobs to men like him, he leapt at the opportunity.
Project Strike was originally designed for active gang members, not necessarily men like Steele. Marcia Ingram, a community outreach worker with the police department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, an anti-gun violence initiative, conceived the program after watching her brother go back and forth to prison. Last December, Ingram met with gang members and religious leaders and talked to them about the kinds of opportunities that would provide youth a way out of their delinquent lifestyles. “We wanted to bring Bloods and Crips and different gangs to the table as part of a unification process,” Ingram says. The rival factions said that good jobs would best provide an escape from the streets.
Ingram took the concept to city manager Patrick Baker, who Ingram says was surprisingly receptive. “I really didn’t think I would be able to go in there and ask the city to give jobs for this program and they would,” Ingram says. But they did. And Ingram wasn’t ready for all the work that would come her way.
Mayor Bell, police Chief Chalmers and City Manager Baker signed on with Strike because they felt they should be the first to reach out to the population that Baker says “provides Durham the reputation of being a high-crime city.”
“The fact of the matter is when a crime happens in the community, people don’t go to the school system,” Baker says. “They don’t go to social services. They go straight to City Hall.”
From his perspective, Ingram’s program provided an immediate, if facile, solution to the problem: Give jobs to those who are willing to work, ask that they keep their noses clean and spread the good word of life on the straight and narrow, and crime should die down. Personal interactions with the first group of Strike participants convinced him as much. “Here is a grown adult who does not have a job or any real options,” Baker says. “Do I let him walk out of my conference room without any hope? To me the answer is a clear ‘no,’ because he could be my next statistic–either pulling the trigger or getting killed.” Baker provided four city labor jobs without much hesitation.
But providing jobs is not the same as managing or even supporting a well-run program. Because he filled set-aside city positions, Strike’s design was tested about as much as if he’d taken any stranger off the street and put him to work. After those initial hires were made, Project Strike’s infrastructure quickly gave way.
To run the program, leaders cobbled together a team of city employees from several different departments. Project Strike officially falls under the umbrella of the police department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, since Ingram, Strike’s coordinator, works with Safe Neighborhoods. But Strike also draws resources from other parts of the police department, the Office of Economic and Employment Development, and Human Resources.
The program doesn’t have any full-time workers. Ingram, who says she works 60 or 70 hours a week, coordinates Strike in addition to other community outreach work. The other city employees involved are also splitting their duties. Courtney McCollum, an ex-offender specialist at the office of economic development, manages a caseload of several hundred other clients. Diane Ragin, a human resources consultant from the city’s department of Human Resources, helps run the city’s re-entry hiring program. Alan DeLisle, director of the economic development office, Patricia Sturdivant, the workforce development administrator there, and Alethea Bell, the director of human resources, are similarly stretched thin. They were asked to join the program because of their particular areas of expertise, but none has been able to truly dedicate time. “How are we going to juggle what we do with Project Strike?” wondered McCollum in a recent meeting for the program.
Ingram was quick to rely on the support of these employees, believing that “there were things already there” to get Strike up and running. Now even she acknowledges that the scattershot approach wasn’t sufficient for the program. “We’re understaffed,” she says. “I don’t think anybody expected turnout to be as big as it was.”
The influx of applications, which Ingram partly attributes to the unwanted publicity from Bagley’s arrest, changed Strike’s original focus. A program intended to help gang members began to accept men like Steele–middle-aged, unemployed ex-offenders with no real gang ties. They were still criminally prone, and in some cases criminally active, but their entry marked one of the first departures from the original plan. “There were so many individuals that came to the table, my program was tweaked a little bit,” Ingram says.
With time, the program gave way even further. Applicants entered Strike through a number of portals: They personally contacted Ingram or some other administrator, or they applied through human resources or the city’s ex-offender program. Some were arrested and tried to claim they were in Strike to mitigate their punishments. The multiple points of entry led to discrepancies in applicant information, which affected the screening process. Some applicants were never drug tested and at least one who failed his test was permitted to remain in the program. Others were accepted with pending criminal charges even though the program has always stipulated that participants should be free of recent indictments.
Once clients were accepted, there was no set path to job placement. Most bounced around between city workers until they grew discouraged and lost contact with the program altogether.
City Manager Baker cautions against condemning Strike too soon and says that this troubleshooting phase would have happened behind closed doors if Bagley hadn’t been arrested in Hillsborough. “The question is could we be helping more people,” he says. “Of course we could. But I can’t judge a program in its first six months on the hundreds of kids we haven’t gotten to.”
Strike workers and volunteers outside the city aren’t facing the same challenges, but they complicate the program’s unwieldy structure, adding additional components that the administration must monitor. The city works with the PROUD program, a nonprofit that usually services court-referred juveniles (and the city tried to defund in 2003) to provide the work-readiness training. And Strike depends on volunteers from Men of Vision, a group of black men organized to give guidance to young, African-American males, to mentor program participants. There are a lot of moving parts.
Every month or two, the key players meet and strategize at City Hall in the second floor boardroom adjoining the city manager’s office. Baker usually presides. An April 26 meeting took place after three classes had completed the screening and coursework for Strike. In the hopes of measuring progress toward the stated goal of employing 10 people, attendees spent the first half of the meeting clarifying who exactly had graduated and where each participant was in the pipeline.
From the three classes that completed work-readiness training, four men have jobs with the city; 11 do not. Two were kicked out of the program because they were deemed unreliable for missing appointments and not returning phone calls. Two failed drug tests. Two have mental or physical disabilities that have made job placement difficult. Two have pending charges in the criminal courts. And three, Steele and his two classmates from the last session, fell by the wayside for no other reason than there aren’t enough positions to go around.
There are failures on all sides, but the city bears much of the responsibility. “We have more people than we have jobs,” Strike coordinator Ingram said in the meeting. “And we have more chiefs than we have Indians.”
Administrators spent the rest of the meeting brainstorming about how they wanted to present the program to the public, who in the administration should do what, and when they should do it. By the day’s end they’d hammered out a clear chain of command and workflow–the first written account of Strike’s new organizational structure.
According to the “Project Strike process” memo, which was e-mailed several weeks after its contents were delineated at the April strategizing session, all Project Strike referrals are supposed to go through Ingram and Lt. Maurice Hayes, the police department’s point person for the program. Ingram and Hayes conduct background checks (charges within the prior six months and sex offenses are forbidden) and drug screenings.
Applicants who make it past the screening process are assigned a mentor and proceed to a three- or four-day work-readiness training that has traditionally been conducted by PROUD. When participants complete the training, a panel assesses their level of education and work history to decide whether they should move on to the job application process or further training. Those who are ready to apply for jobs are referred to Diane Ragin in HR, who works with participants to see if they’re eligible for city jobs. If no jobs become available within two weeks, clients are referred to Courtney McCollum, ex-offender specialist, joining a pool of about 300 people. If McCollum doesn’t find them a job in a month, Strike participants are referred yet again to a case manager for more training. There they join a pool of 500 other clients, but they get preferential treatment.
Strike administrators plan for convicted felons, gangbangers and everyday hustlers, people who already have little patience for the mainstream economy, to jump through hoops when the promised jobs don’t yet exist. “Right now we have the names of 150 individuals and I am still getting calls,” Chalmers said in in a meeting on June 14. “I think that’s the tip of the iceberg. Once this is up and going, people need to see when they get to the end of the process that there is a job. We are not in a position to say that right now.”
The city can’t take on many more laborers. And despite efforts to recruit local companies into the program, not a single job has materialized from the private sector.
Baker, whose primary responsibility is to ensure that the city has hard services like running water and trash removal, is overwhelmed. “My whole hope was that we could get this started in city government and spin this off to somebody–some other entity that can take this on,” Baker says. “We are having a hard enough time with this. … We really need help. The city has gone well above and beyond in reaching out to this group and taking some heat for it. Can anybody else step up and help here?”
“We’ve never tried this before,” he says.
But the city has several similar programs. In March of this year, the city’s Human Resources Department won an award for its Re-entry Hiring Program, which is designed to employ individuals who have been incarcerated. According to a city press release, the program provides six months of on-the-job training and designates mentors to assist participants with their transitions to work. Ten ex-offenders have been hired in city labor positions. Courtney McCollum and Diane Ragin, who both assist with Project Strike, administer this almost identical program.
In May, the city’s economic development office launched a separate program to “extend as many employment and training services as possible to Durham’s disadvantaged residents,” according to another press release. Alan DeLisle, who helps with Strike, directs that program.
But Strike leaders say these programs serve different populations.
Leaders from nonprofits who have experience helping the kinds of people that Strike tries to help say the program needs more structure and, most importantly, more money. “That’s a piece that needs an entire organization to run,” says Martina Dunsford, executive director of Training for Success, an alternative school program. “When you have the attention of some of the people that Project Strike has gotten the attention of, then you have to be in a place to move to the next level,” she says. “I don’t know how that project can go any place without funding. There is no way possible.”
Kevin McDonald, executive director of Durham’s nationally acclaimed, two-year TROSA rehabilitation program, says it takes programs like Strike a while to get off the ground, but money is essential. “If you don’t have a fulltime dedicated person, the goodness of all these other people won’t help. You need at least one person, maybe more…. It would be really helpful to have a budget.”
On the decision not to allocate any funds, Baker says, “We have given a lot of staff time, which is of course money. We have not given dollars, but we have provided jobs.”
He says nonprofits might be better suited to run a program like Strike, but still believes that the city can play a special role in reaching out to Strike’s target population. “I would submit that a typical ex-offender program probably isn’t going to get to the people that most need the assistance,” Baker says. “They have significant criminal histories and they’re out there on the run. They’re not on probation. They’re not being watched. They’re not in the system. We’re just waiting on them to commit the next crime.”
He says the police department provides unparalleled access to this group. “We know who they are,” he says. “We know where they are.”
Steele was one of the earliest to arrive on the first day of his work-readiness session in April. He took a seat at the long table closest to the white board, which was blank except for the name and phone number that Quillie Coath, the course’s charismatic instructor, had scribbled in black marker. Steele’s would-be classmates were running late, not having mastered their respective bus routes, so he sat there with a couple of others filling out practice job applications. The tardy arrived about 20 minutes after 9 a.m. with no pens or paper, but eager nonetheless, not so much to learn as to work.
“Our goal in the next few days is to get back in that work habit,” Coath told his new pupils. He’s a black man whose voice, size and presence are big enough for him to be an imposing figure even in a class like this. He usually works with juveniles, but he made an exception when the city asked PROUD to help with Project Strike. His three-day course was designed to acculturate Strike participants to life on a 9 to 5 job. Steele was one of the few who’d ever had real work. He was the only one with a high school diploma.
One of the first questions from the class pertained to whether or not they should include their criminal backgrounds on future applications. “That’s the unique part of this program,” Coath said. “They are going to know your record when you walk in the door. Even if you use an alias nowadays, it’s going to catch up with you.” Throughout the day, Coath used the word “nowadays” like he was introducing them to a different time and place.
He knew the men dealt with all sorts of burdens–from hungry children to health problems–and his responsibility was to teach them to forget it all, for 40 hours a week, anyway. “Nobody should know how you’re feeling when you walk in that door,” Coath said as he paced the room handing out more applications.
He coached them to overcome their instinctive responses to conflict, which for most tended toward violence. “Be prepared for anything on the worksite,” he said. “A lot of y’all have been hustling. You can’t deal with things that way.”
In class, Steele showed a self-possession that seemed to grow out of the depth of his experience. He spoke openly about his reasons for attending. “God has changed my life and given me hope,” he said. “I’m working for my son. Everything I do is for him.” His was a common refrain. Each told of someone or something that inspired reform: a new girlfriend, a new neighborhood, a newfound relationship with a parent, a new child–all new chances. But like Steele, most have found metamorphosis easier imagined than done.
Program coordinator Ingram, who had been sitting in the back of the room throughout the morning, stood to tell the class about their likely job opportunity. She’s the main point of contact between the guys and the city. With an always-handy cell phone, she fields their questions, helps arrange transportation and does most of the ground-level planning for the program. She also looks for employers who might hire Strike participants.
Ingram had been helping to arrange a lead abatement training–an opportunity for the men to learn to remove lead paint and dust from old homes and businesses. She said she knew the woman who handled lead abatement contracts for Durham and Charlotte, and that those who completed the lead training would have jobs waiting for them. If the guys could wait until the following Monday and find transportation to the three-day class, they’d be set.
That promise wasn’t enough to hold the attention of most of the men. Only three of the original seven returned for the work-readiness classes on the second and third days, and Steele was one of them. They spent the second day writing and polishing their resumes and learning interview techniques. The last day was their chance to pull everything together for mock interviews with a career assessment counselor.
Through the eyes of the majestic
lion, In the Lord I want to be king,
Of the journey, of the jungle, of
The light I have seen.
Through the mighty claw of the
Hawk, I press my way to hold on,
To the vision, to the hand, to
the one that sits on the throne.
Through the unbelievable strength of
the elephant, I press my way just to see,
Why my God had chosen me, and
what it is I would be.
Through the mighty cold of the
winter, I press my way to find heat,
Through the unbelievable coat of the
wolf, I find the God I seek.
Through the maximum speed of
The Jaguar, I find myself running for Faith,
Victory isn’t to the fast or the swift,
but to the one that endureth the race.
Through the long neck of the giraffe,
I find myself looking over mountains,
Of my journeys, of my trials, and up
to the one that found me.
My God, my savior my soul mate true,
I pray and yes I believe,
Through the mighty hug of the mighty
Python, I thank you for holding me.
Through this walk shall I trip,
Please don’t let me be
Fix me up just like a cat, I’ll
Always land on my feet.
Through this journey shall I get
lost, help me find my way,
like the owl at night, fish in
the water, the birds that fly by day.
Through the tree I want to stand,
be rooted deep in the Word,
Through your Grace I find myself
whole, and I understand the voice I have
Derrick D. Steele Sr.
A 20-year-old high school dropout and former dope dealer whose mother was dead and father was gone was the first to interview. He fumbled with his hands until eventually asking where to put them. He didn’t understand most questions, though he quickly answered the one about his greatest accomplishments, noting his participation in Project Strike as top of the list. “Some of these guys have never humbled themselves to anybody,” instructor Coath said later.
Steele was much more poised. He said good morning, shook hands and maintained eye contact. His primary goal in life, he said in response to a question, was to live without struggle. “I don’t want to get too personal, but I’m going through some things,” he said. He concluded the interview with a reading of one of his own poems, “Through.”
After the third participant finished his interview, all three were presented with certificates and ushered out to the parking lot for a graduation picture. “It’s important for these guys to feel a sense of accomplishment, like they’ve done something,” Coath said. He later hung the photograph with the scores of others in the PROUD classroom–all little pieces of hope.
The following Monday, April 17, came and went without anyone hearing from Ingram about the time or exact location of the lead abatement training. As would happen frequently in the following weeks, Ingram did not return their phone calls. For Steele as with the others, days passed without contact from the program.
In the long wait for work, Steele’s life began to unravel. Nearing death, his mother kicked him and Spencer out of the house in a last-ditch effort to instill some self-reliance in her son. He scrambled to find a place to live and eventually moved to a small apartment that his grandmother had vacated. Suddenly he had to find $276 a month for rent and more for utilities and food. “I felt like my momma ruined me,” Steele says.
He was in church when his mother died a couple of weeks later. He felt a sense of relief because she had suffered toward the end, but he also had lost his best friend and primary source of support. “I cried one time and really felt it,” he says. Now he tries not to think about it.
In the middle of May, Ingram called to inform Steele that the lead abatement training had been rescheduled for later in the month. He made transportation arrangements but wasn’t as hopeful as he’d once been. Weeks of waiting aroused in him a skepticism that never quelled. He called a Durham job counselor he’d been working with to ask the question that had long been on his mind: Does completion of the training guarantee a job? She hedged. Neither could she tell him how much he might earn if he did get hired.
Early on the morning of the training, the person with whom he’d arranged to ride pounded on Steele’s door. He answered, not dressed for training and clearly having just rolled out of bed. He said that his rent and electricity bill were due that coming Friday. With less than a week to make the money, Steele couldn’t afford to spend three days in training with no promise of employment. He thanked his friend for coming, sent him home and sat in his living room thinking about how he could make rent.
Eleven Project Strike participants were supposed to attend the lead abatement training. Nine completed the class.
The EI Group, an environmental safety, industrial hygiene and occupational health consulting firm based in Research Triangle Park, conducted the session. When representatives from Strike contacted the company to teach the class, EI treated them like any other client. The class would cost $400 for each participant and at least five had to show up to guarantee a profit. Each participant would have to take an exam after the course.
Deborah Walker works with EI and organized the training on the company’s end. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “It was terrible. Our company doesn’t usually do stuff like this.” She had to wait for the Strike administrators to arrange funding from a private donor and for certain participants to graduate from their work-readiness classes. She only persisted because she wanted to help the participants. “It’s been hard,” Walker says. “I was on the verge of pulling out. I wasn’t getting any answers from anybody.”
On the first day of the training, many of the Strike participants arrived unaware that they’d be required to take an exam and that there was no guarantee of work thereafter. “We teach safety and hazard,” Walker says. “Provide jobs for people? We don’t do that.” None of the Strike trainees have gotten jobs.
Ingram says that the trainees haven’t gotten work because many of them haven’t turned in all the paperwork to complete the application for lead certification. “Only three people turned in their stuff on time,” she says. “That was a real big hold up … I can’t call everybody. At some point in time I have to let hands go and let people do what they’re supposed to do.”
Steele has lost contact with the program. He recently bumped into a Strike participant that he recognized from his April session. “He went to the lead abatement class,” Steele says. “He said he still doesn’t have job. I asked him what he was doing now. He said he’s back on the block.”
Like many Strike participants, every so often he calls Ingram, the program coordinator, but she doesn’t return his calls. Ingram says there’s a reason for that. “I stopped bringing people to the table and talking about this program and returning phone calls because I have nothing to tell them,” she says. “I don’t want to tell them ‘We’ll have a job for you’ and then we don’t have one. That’s basically my concern.”
Project Strike is now on hold until administrators can line up more jobs.
Spencer, Steele’s girlfriend, found work at a UPS store in Chapel Hill. He used to grumble in envy when she woke for work every morning; he refused to walk her to the bus stop. But now he realizes they’re in it together. Spencer saves much of her earnings for the time when they may have no income at all. The two are in premarital counseling, though Steele is waiting until he can afford a ring to officially propose.
The couple spends most days in church with little Ryo parked in his car seat on the chair beside them. Prayer sustains Steele, though his worship is haunted by the specter of his own demise. “The enemy sits in your closet listening to your prayers and waiting on you to get weak,” he says. “It’s a constant struggle for me.” For that reason, he promised God he would stop drinking. “It’s starting to trigger the enemy in me. It’s not getting me high enough.”
When Steele isn’t in church, he’s home looking after his son. When he has enough money to put gas in the car that was given to him by a church brother, he takes Ryo and drives around looking for work. On a day when he had a babysitter, he went to the woods and spent hours scoping some kids selling drugs. As he watched them make deal after deal, Steele calculated that they had enough money to take care of his family for weeks. Tired of the food bank, the canned beans and the bread that turns bright green after a day, he thought about getting his gun. “I know that the guys I was watching, if I’d have hit them, I would have hit them big,” he says. “I would have been straight for three weeks.” He thought better of it when he realized they know where he lives.
These days he tries to keep his hustles legal. He spent a full, hot day on a roof cleaning someone’s gutters and running from giant spiders for $30 in cash. Another summer day, Steele cut the weeds on two big hills in his neighborhood. He didn’t have anyone to watch Ryo, so he took the boy with him and parked his stroller in the shade. He made another $30 that day, but soon after, someone from social services knocked on his door and warned him against mistreating his son.
Worrying about Ryo has led Steele closest to the edge. On a day when he had an appointment with a Durham job counselor, his son was sick. The job counselor couldn’t find him work nor could she offer medicine, which Steele had asked her for. In a moment of fury, he broke down in tears. “That’s it,” he yelled. “I’ll get it.” He thought back to the boys he’d been watching push dope in the woods. “I don’t want to use my son as an excuse, but that’s my reason. I don’t want him to suffer. Whatever it takes for me to take care of my family, I’ll do it.”
“I went into battle mode,” he says. “I almost snapped that day. But I thought about Dwight Bagley. I didn’t want that.”
On a steaming hot, July day when Steele had spent his last $8 on gas to meet people who wouldn’t hire him instead of on food or medicine for his feverish son, he stopped by the corner store near his house and asked a stranger for the rest of his beer. When he got home, he set Ryo down on the air mattress, which he’d moved to the living room to be beneath the cold flow of the window AC unit. His head aching, he sipped the beer and smoked a cheap filtered cigar, flicking ashes in the brown paper bag that held the tall can. The television, with its permanent green hue, made a loud pop before and after each commercial. Steele steadily watched the news because he believes it proves apocalypse is near. The room was dark but for the light of the television. The air conditioner hummed. A fan whirled. The place was a mess–baby bottles, blankets, toys and papers strewn about–because, in his boredom, Steele had grown tired of tidying. He shifted his gaze between the screen and his son until little Ryo fell asleep.
“Things are going to smooth out,” he thought as he took a swig of beer. “I just have to be patient.”
Last week, after more than a year searching for work and months with Project Strike, Steele got a third-shift job at McDonald’s–the kind he could have gotten if he’d never graduated from high school. He got a second job manufacturing windows, which he promptly quit when he found another job operating a forklift. For now, he’s all right. He’ll see what tomorrow brings.
One that worked
The four Project Strike participants who were fortunate enough to receive city jobs have had an experience that most of the others envy. Cedrick Scarlett, who heard about the program through word of mouth, performs street maintenance for Durham’s public works department.
“I was 31 years old,” Scarlett says. “I needed a job with some benefits. I wanted a family and you can’t raise kids on the street.”
City Manager Patrick Baker gave him the job about three weeks after he completed his work-readiness session in January, and Scarlett believes that would’ve happened even faster if Dwight Bagley hadn’t been arrested. “I wasn’t going to put my eggs in one basket,” he says. “I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. But I did want to get my job with the city.”
Before he joined the city labor force, Scarlett hustled to make ends meet and also worked other odd jobs. He hadn’t had a steady gig in two years.
“I did whatever I did in the street to pay bills and child support,” he says. He’d been repeatedly turned down for jobs because of a misdemeanor on his record. “But they didn’t look at all my experience. You never know anybody’s past–why they are hustling and kicking down doors. They get older. They understand their faults. Give them an opportunity.”
Since he started with the city, life has been good. His personal relationships with his children and their mother have improved. “Now that I have BlueCross BlueShield, she’s talking about dropping child support.”
He sympathizes with his Project Strike classmates who weren’t so lucky. “When I was there, everybody was promised,” Scarlett says. “I felt bad for them.” He thinks the program would see greater success with more community support and hopes private employers come to the table.
But he’s happy to wake up with the sun and put on a city uniform. “I love to go to work,” he says. “I love my job.”