When Timothy Thomas got out of prison last year, he found himself “investing in the stock market” with a sledgehammer. Don Williams picked up a crowbar and started making “art.” Kenneth Baines got a new “Pa,” and Roger Johnson found he could be a leader and not a “punk.”
The four men, all formerly incarcerated, made those transitions while demolishing houses together as part of Emerge, a New Haven not-for-profit that works with ex-offenders.
Emerge hires ex-offenders for property management and house demolition jobs, and uses the paycheck as an incentive to teach participants parenting and literacy skills. The program is intended not just to train participants for new jobs, but to give them the self-awareness they’ll need to keep a new job.
Thomas (pictured above) and Williams and Baines and Johson, along with other participants in a job-training program, are now marking a new milestone. They’re beginning Emerge’s first ever start-to-finish home restoration. The crew will be not only gutting an old house at 28 Lilac Street in Newhallville, but rebuilding it as well.
Emerge has been hired by Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), which is engaged in an intensive effort to lift a block of Lilac that has struggled in the past with blight and crime.
28 Lilac sits next to a new home NHS built this year, after Yale’s architecture school abandoned the task when a professor was attacked at the job site. NHS has been looking for a buyer for the completed home, with no luck.
The new house won’t sell unless the crumbling house next door is fixed up, said NHS Director Jim Paley.
That’s where Emerge comes in.
At 28 Lilac St. the other day, a crew of Emerge workers wielding hammers and crowbars and wearing hardhats and neon vests pulled nails from exposed wall studs and threw old insulation from a second floor window into a Dumpster on the driveway below.
Baines (pictured), who’s 37, was up on a ladder in what was the home’s front hall, searching out nails with a crowbar. He said he’s been with Emerge for seven months, after four years in prison.
“I like it,” he said. He’s found himself looking forward to work, and getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get there. “That was hard for me to do.”
Baines said he had been “running the streets,” involved with guns and drugs. “I was living a bad life.”
After he got out of jail, he decided it was time for a change. “I’m getting older. I have kids.”
Baines himself got a new father when he joined Emerge. “Pa,” is what he calls Dan Jusino, the head of the program. “He’s like our pa.”
As the crew labored, Jusino (at left in photo, with Thomas, right), the fast-talking father figure, and Emerge staff Mark Wilson and Alden Woodcock explained the theory behind the program.
Emerge pays ex-offenders $10.10 an hour to work and learn new jobs skills, but that’s only a means to another end.
“I can put them on payroll and make them do things they don’t want to do,” Jusino said.
In order to get three days per week of paid work with Emerge, participants have to do two days per week of literacy classes, and group counseling sessions. The three days of work might give them experience and skills that will help them get a job; the two other days will help them stay employed, Jusino said.
Literacy is a key component, Jusino said. A lot of guys coming out of prison don’t read well enough to be a good job applicant, but they don’t want to sit through classes either. Emerge motivates them to improve by allowing them to spend the six hours a week set aside for literacy classes working and earning money, as soon as they pass a test showing they can read at a sufficient level.
Emerge makes use of free online courses through Khan Academy and retiree tutors at the First Presbyterian Church on Whitney Avenue.
Time is set aside each week for “real talk,” group sessions in which Emerge participants get into “what really drives them,” their emotions, their childhoods, traumas they’ve experienced.
“I want them to develop a pause button,” said Jusino. He said he wants people to learn to stop and think before they react to things, to understand what triggers their emotions.
“Jobs never kept people going back to jail,” Jusino said.
“If all we can give them is a paycheck,” then we’ve failed, said Wilson.
Thomas, who’s 27, said he likes getting a paycheck, but the real payoff will come later.
“I look at this job like investing in the stock market,” he said. Emerge will help him build a foundation for employment for years to come. “It gets greater later.”
Thomas said he was “real skeptical” when he first joined, last September. He decided to give it a try because other people he knew had been through the program.
Johnson, who’s been with Emerge for two years, ended up with Emerge the same way. He followed his friend Wayne into the program and has since influenced others to sign on as well, “because of the credibility he’s got on the street,” Jusino said.
Johnson’s participation demonstrated “you’re not a punk if you come do this,” Jusino said
Some participants follow others into Emerge; others join because, like Baines, they’re tired of the life they’ve been leading.
That’s the case for Williams, who’s 36. Originally from California, Williams was visiting a cousin in New Haven in 2004 when the pair decided to pull a street robbery. They got caught, and Williams was in prison until 2011.
“I said, ‘I can’t do this not more,’” Williams said. “I have to have a productive life somehow.”
Emerge has helped Williams start to do that. “I call it art,” Williams said of his work on old houses. “We take run-down houses and make them look like that,” he said, pointing to the brand new house next door, a vision of Lilac Street’s future.