Dan Rodricks: ‘Diggin’ trash, kickin’ rats’ on the road to recovery in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

September 30, 2021

A crew from Project SERVE gathers for a team photo after removing trash and weeding the yard of three abandoned rowhouses in Northwest Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun staff)

By Dan Rodricks, Baltimore Sun: September 30, 2021

On a recent weekday morning, while commuters hustled to work and children strolled to school along the busy streets of East Baltimore, about 25 men and women gathered in a quiet space on the second floor of a brick building at Fayette and Caroline. Here in Our City of Perpetual Recovery, there are hundreds of places where recovery begins; the community center at the Broadway Overlook apartments is one of them. I declare it a church, not in any consecrated sense — I’m not endowed with such authority — but certainly in a spiritual one.

So I attended what you might call morning service in the Church of Our City of Perpetual Recovery.

It was the daily assembly of adults enrolled in Project SERVE, a program of the Living Classrooms Foundation that helps men and women get on track for employment and stable lives after incarceration. We call them “returning citizens” now; they’re really “recovering citizens,” trying to start over after years in prison and the troubles that sent them there.

Leroy Murray, in a quandary about what to do after five years in the Maryland Correctional and Training Center in Hagerstown, enrolled in Project SERVE in 2019. He says the work he did and the counseling he received changed his life. “I asked God for a way out,” he says. “Project SERVE gave me hope, a new direction, a new perspective on life.” Murray now drives a Living Classrooms dump truck, hauling trash that others on his crew pull out of abandoned row houses and off vacant lots.

That’s the main thing Project SERVE crews do around the city. Every year, they remove tons of trash from streets, alleys and yards. Thursday morning, the workers filled a dump truck with junk from behind three city-owned, abandoned houses on Cordelia Avenue in Park Heights. They knocked away thick weeds in the front yards, and one of the workers, Danny “Disco” Trotman, came through with a leaf blower to clear the walkways and sidewalk. It seemed more than the properties deserved; one of the houses was missing its roof and all three appeared to be due for demolition. The city, however, might still think they’re salvageable and salable. Either way, I’m sure the homeowners next door and across the street appreciated the cleanup.

“One of the great things is when the people come out and thank you,” says Kevin Scott, who enrolled in Project SERVE in 2016 and now assists the crew chief, Cindy Covington, and drives a dump truck. “We’ve had people come out with a case of cold waters, and even people who came out and gave money and said, ‘I want to treat all of y’all to a cold beverage or lunch.’ Also, we’ve had people start to clean up their own property when they see what we did.”

The work is tough and gritty, but it builds pride, confidence and teamwork. “I mean, you don’t look forward to diggin’ trash and kickin’ rats,” he says. “But you love the camaraderie.”

“It’s like family,” says Covington, who takes huge satisfaction in the number of properties her crews can clean in a day. They did 20 on Tuesday, 17 on Wednesday and 13 by noon on Thursday.

Project SERVE crews carried out some 5,000 cleanup and maintenance assignments in 2020. The program also offers training in groundskeeping and horticulture, carpentry and construction. The work assignments come from the city’s Department of Public Works, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, the Waterfront Partnership, the Downtown Partnership and the National Park Service, among others. Imani Yasin, the program director, says 23 people from Project SERVE will soon fill vacancies in DPW, an arrangement that could provide an avenue to permanent employment for even more adults who come through the program.

Decreasing crime in Baltimore and reducing recidivism are major goals of Project SERVE. The Department of Justice measures recidivism as the percentage of inmates who return to prison within three years of release. Various studies have put the national rate at between 60% and 70%. Maryland has done better within the last decade, bringing recidivism down to about 43%. Project SERVE claims a recidivism rate of just 15%, which is very good approaching excellent.

Having heard hundreds of frustrated ex-offenders talk about the difficulty in landing work after prison, I see the key feature of Project SERVE as “rapid attachment to employment.” Those who enroll get to work right away, and the hourly wages for Project SERVE members range from $11.75 to $16.64. The program lasts four to six months. Project SERVE enrolls about 150 adults a year.

Getting paid is good. Getting counseling is helpful. But the morning meetings, at Broadway Overlook, are especially meaningful. Danny Trotman calls them “sacred.” It’s communion for people who’ve faced the same struggles in life, a chance to talk about the roads they’ve traveled and what they’ve learned on the way.

During Wednesday’s gathering, one man said he had learned, above all, to be patient with recovery. A woman across the circle said she had developed a greater sense of gratitude, and “not for gifts or things, but just for life and learning every day.”

And there was one more man, older than the rest, who said he finally had found a “vision for the future,” that he was at last beginning to see his place in the mainstream and what a stable, peaceful life might look like.