Opening Doors and Minds

Groups pool efforts to help ex-offenders find jobs

Jun 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm


t 23 years old, James Lunsford might have been out of options. Just a few years out of high school, the Western Hills resident was working a slew of temporary jobs to make ends meet. But a run-in with the law two years ago — a mistake he regrets and quickly owns — changed everything. With a felony on his record and a suspended driver’s license, he found himself unemployable.

“All these different jobs that I worked for so long, they always wanted me,” Lunsford says. “They said I was a hard worker. Then, I had my problems. They wouldn’t give me a chance. They wouldn’t even look at me.”

Lunsford’s dilemma is a fate that hundreds, possibly thousands, of Cincinnati residents face, finding themselves unemployable because of legal issues, education problems or other hiring policies that are keeping them out of new jobs.

With the local unemployment rate hovering at just over 10 percent, the growing problem has spurred the Jobless Organizing Project, a partnership among several groups to help open doors for the city’s unemployed and underemployed.

Spearheaded by the HELP Program, a local ministry of St. Francis Seraph that works with ex-offenders on accessing job training, resources and mentoring, and the social justice advocacy group The AMOS Project, a Tristate coalition of 30 churches, the effort seeks to give those Cincinnatians a fair shot at landing full-time, well-paying jobs.

“The problem is — and has been for a long time — that if you have a felony on your record or you haven’t finished your GED, you’re basically unemployable in many areas,” says Brother Mike Murphy, who has managed the HELP Program for two years. “For so many people, that’s the start of a vicious circle. They’re left behind and never get a chance to move forward.”

In some cases, he adds, it feeds other social ills. Murphy sadly relays the story of one HELP client who previously was arrested for selling drugs. After serving his prison time, he tried for months to find a job only to encounter closed doors.

“After a few months, he was frustrated,” Murphy says. “He said to me, ‘How many places have I been to? Twenty? Thirty? I can’t make money off the street. I can make money back on the street. I have to support my family. I have to go back.’ ”

“That’s what we’re facing,” he says. “We have to find a way for guys like that to get a chance to turn themselves around.”

Having worked on Cincinnati’s jobless problem on parallel paths for years, HELP and AMOS decided to team up late last year to focus their efforts. Although they have the same goal, the two organizations are attacking it on different fronts: HELP is working directly with ex-felons and workers with other legal issues to help them find new jobs, while AMOS is focusing on advocacy, bringing pressure on government officials to enact local hiring policies for The Banks riverfront project and local civil service jobs.

Both have seen early success.

Currently, HELP has 110 clients enrolled in its programs, working with them to overcome legal roadblocks while helping them become more attractive to prospective employers.

Lunsford is among the clients.

Through HELP, he was able to join Iron Workers Union Local No. 372, getting enrolled in its apprenticeship program. Having served a year in the program, he expects to finally be put to work this summer. He’s also been invited to speak at local schools about his struggle and the importance of education.

“The program helped me get my driver’s license back, which you need to work with the union,” he says. “It helped me work on my resume. They helped me get into the apprenticeship program. I made my mistakes, I admit that and I want to get past that. If I wasn’t in the program, if it wasn’t there to help me, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.”

Terry “T.J.” Jones is another HELP client. The 38-year-old father of four from Over-the-Rhine has been out of work for five years after serving time for drug trafficking. Although it would be easier (and probably more lucrative) to return to that life, he works a wide range of jobs, picking up income where he can, ranging from carpentry to cutting hair, while looking for a full-time job.

“I get work wherever I can find it,” he says. “I’m out there working every day. I’ve got two 17-year-olds. I want them to go to college. I want a better life for all four of my kids, and I’ll work for it.”

His criminal record doesn’t make that easy, though. Like most of HELP’s clients, Jones says, all he wants is a chance.

“We want work, not welfare,” he says. “We want dignity, not despair.”

Meanwhile, he’s also working as an organizer for the Jobless Organizing Project, helping push others to succeed.

At the same time, AMOS has scored successes on the effort’s advocacy front. In February, it launched its Nehemiah Campaign, with the goals of a countywide policy for hiring local residents on projects such as The Banks and helping the city of Cincinnati institute a Fair Hiring Policy for municipal jobs, opening doors to former offenders. Working with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, AMOS is also lobbying for statewide hiring reforms as well as the national Local Jobs for America Act, currently on Congress’ agenda.

Shortly after starting the Nehemiah Campaign, AMOS held rallies and delivered 1,000 letters from Cincinnati residents to Mayor Mark Mallory calling for the Fair Hiring Policy, which wouldn’t hold old convictions against job applicants for city jobs. It led to a promise from City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. to hire 10 ex-offenders.

“It was a good first step,” says AMOS Project Executive Director Paul Graham, “but the city still has a way to go. We want the Fair Hiring Policy clearly defined and in place, which should open doors to many more people.”

Graham expects City Council will act June 16 to formally place the policy on the group’s agenda for next week, followed by a public meeting with Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune. The meeting, 7 p.m. Thursday at Tryed Stone Missionary Baptist Church in Bond Hill, will focus on the policy as it relates to city jobs. Graham is cautiously optimistic the motion will pass.

“We’re looking for the city to be a leader and champion the policy,” he says. “To say, ‘Yes, we believe in redemption. We believe in fairness.’”

With that accomplished, the same attitude can begin to extend to the private sector, bringing opportunities for many more.

“At that point, we can go hand-in-hand with the city to other employers and say, ‘Look, the city’s doing it. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. You can give people a second chance.’”