BALTIMORE – Before November 1995, Russell James had become a familiar figure in this city’s court system, facing arrests for shoplifting, drug and gun possession, he said.
But all that changed last spring. Instead of selling drugs, James, 19, began renovating houses.
He also started helping his fiancee, Tracy Wells, pay the bills and take care of the three children in their West Baltimore household. “I got the afternoon shift with the kids,” he said.
“He’s a great provider,” she said.
James is one of 18 inner-city fathers enrolled in a federal pilot program that aims to keep the dads involved in their children’s lives by giving them group counseling and parenting classes and helping them secure jobs.
All of the men were hired by contractors working for the city to remove lead-based paint from old homes.
The Baltimore program has been in place since 1994 and is similar to a pilot project operating in Hartford, Conn. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds both programs, hopes to soon replicate them in other cities, departing HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros said a few weeks ago.
And administrators of the Baltimore program hope this year to double the number of its participants – to 36.
All the men enrolled in Baltimore’s program have a significant other who is enrolled in a high-risk pregnancy program, called Healthy Start Inc. It is aimed at women living in areas of Baltimore that suffer from a high rate of infant mortality – the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park and Middle East communities.
James entered the program in December 1995 because his 21- year-old fiancee was a client. In April 1996, after completing a physical, the program administrators, Men’s Services, helped James become a trainee with Environmental Restorations Inc.
His criminal record had made it impossible to find legitimate work on his own.
For the first 30 days, James was paid $6/hour to help with inner-city housing renovations. He now earns $8/hour – enough to pay half of the $400-a-month rent for the house he shares with Wells in West Baltimore.
Before James got this job, the couple lived with her mother, Wells said.
The parenting and peer counseling sessions have also made a difference in his life.
When James first starting coming to the sessions he did not say much, said Joe Jones, a former heroin addict who now works as director of Men’s Services. But over time, Jones said that the 19-year-old’s behavior changed.
“You could see him smile,” Jones said.
And James said he has learned to communicate better with Wells. After coming home from work, they discuss their day, he said.
He also attends pediatric and pre-natal appointments with her, which he said allows him to keep up with what is going on. The couple, who already have one child together, a 2 year-old, are expecting a second child soon. Wells also has two children from another relationship.
A goal of the program is for James and the other participants to build a work record, which should allow them to provide for their families without any assistance, said David Egner, a HUD spokesman.
Clark McNutt, an owner of Environmental Restorations Inc., said James excels in carpentry.
Jones, pointing to the boarded houses near the Healthy Start building on North Carey Street in West Baltimore, said the men’s program is important to the families. He asks how can one expect a child to grow up healthy in such circumstances.
“It’s imperative that we find ways of helping our community,” Jones said.