BALTIMORE – It’s 8 a.m. and everyone has filed into the office — the moving crew and the paper shredders in matching midnight blue shirts, the office administrators who sit at the desks up front, and the boss.
A circle is formed, hands are held and people begin to speak.
Some thank God for waking them up that morning. Others praise everyone’s presence at work. And others express insecurities over their private lives, from the need to obtain a driver’s license and a car to the strain of paying child support.
Ten minutes pass, the meeting called morning wake is over and the employees of Harbor City Services begin to work.
The storage, shredding and moving business located just outside of Baltimore is a warehouse with a mission: to employ individuals who suffer from mental illness and addiction and to improve the community while doing so.
Brivett James, 38, came to Harbor City four months ago.
“I’m like a child in the work force, James said. After a life “lived on the other side of society,” Harbor City is James’ first job.
“This is the longest I’ve worked. I’ve worked here four months, and that’s the longest I’ve worked consistently. Four months,” said James.
It was difficult for James to adjust to Harbor City — “to getting up in the mornings, being to work on time” — but “it’s a job and it’s a check. And you know, it helps. It definitely helps me. Because otherwise, ain’t no telling what I would be trying to do,” James said.
“This was my introduction to getting a paycheck, and I want to get a paycheck for the rest of my life,” said James.
A progressive outlook toward mental health care inspired Harbor City’s inception in 1987, when social worker turned CEO John Herron found himself at the helm of a Baltimore-based rehabilitation program striving to create a richer life for the mentally ill through sustainable employment in a society that so often stigmatizes Harbor City’s work force.
The nonprofit rests on the theory of social enterprise, which holds that it is possible to achieve a social mission through a business.
“Good business improves civilization,” Herron said. “There’s nothing counter to … using good business practices to achieve” a social goal.
But caring has a cost. It’s the cost of morning wake, an on-the-clock event. It’s the cost of cross-training an unskilled work force to ensure that a job can get done when the warehouse is short staffed. It’s the cost of workers lost to relapse.
“That mission-related work … is something that we have absorbed financially, and it’s hurt our competitiveness,” Herron said.
In the last 18 months, Harbor City has for the first time had to look for financial support from grants, donations and foundations.
But Herron still sees social enterprise as a necessary investment. Employing people with mental illness or problems with substance abuse can reduce money spent on social services and criminal justice costs.
“We have to figure out ways of engaging them in our society. We’re losing too much talent,” Herron said.
Herron believes that social enterprise is “a movement whose time has come. We have seen the failure of excessive capitalism. And we have also seen the failure of a social system based exclusively on charity, (which) has made peasants of those that choose to work in social service agencies,” he said.
In calling for the closure of the rift that exists between nonprofit and for-profit business philosophies, Herron said he hopes to “make the world work for people with chronic illnesses,” such as the schizophrenia, depression or addiction that afflict much of Harbor City’s work force.
Although Herron insists that Harbor City is a workplace rather than a treatment center, the warehouse plays an important part in the recovery of its employees.
From helping workers open a bank account or establish credit to scheduling shifts around treatment meetings, Harbor City provides its employees with services that “help people to deal with the business of life,” Herron said.
Harbor City also acknowledges relapse as an unavoidable part of recovery, as it might be for other chronic illnesses like diabetes or hypertension.
So a Harbor City employee who relapses isn’t fired because of his relapse.
Many Harbor City employees have been unable to find such an accommodating work environment elsewhere, outside of this place where “nobody judges you. Nobody looks down on you. Everybody is sensitive to everybody’s needs,” said Marietta Smith, Harbor City’s office administrator.
Before coming to Harbor City in the late 1990s, Smith, 53, worked as a secretary for employers who knew she had been diagnosed with depression but remained ignorant of how to work with her.
“It was like everybody was working around me. Like they were scared to give me certain tasks,” Smith said.
Smith copied, collated and answered phones — “and I have too many skills for that.”
“A lot of times, people are not educated about mental illness … and that’s what I think was my problem in the past,” Smith said.
Office manager Kathleen Reese, whom several Harbor City employees have nicknamed Ms. Kat, has had similar experiences working in the corporate world.
“I have never, ever seen anything like this whatsoever,” said Reese, 51, who has also been diagnosed with depression.
“I absolutely know without a shadow of a doubt, if I was working somewhere else, I would not be working right now. I just would not be capable of performing under that kind of environment,” Reese said.
Reese has worked at Harbor City for seven years, and has the freedom to shut her office door or work from home when she needs to cope with the ups and downs of her illness.
Her job at Harbor City has “allowed me to set the pace that I needed to as I was recovering. I was very raw, didn’t have any confidence, hadn’t worked in nine months. So it allowed me to recognize that I still had skills I could tap into,” Reese said.
“We are functional,” said Smith. “Even though we have this illness, we still can function in society.”