New Orleans Downtown Development District program aims to give jobs to homeless and ex-cons _lowres

DDD Clean Team

A new program unveiled by the New Orleans Downtown Development District aims to reduce recidivism and unemployment by giving preference in contracts to companies that seek to hire homeless individuals and ex-convicts.

Called The New Paths Initiative, the plan will provide incentives for companies to employ people struggling to find their way back into the workforce.

Advocates say it will not only “transform” the lives of the people hired but also reduce the societal costs associated with recidivism, unemployment and homelessness.

“The statistics are really stark — 52 percent of folks getting out of jail today are going back in three years,” said Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District. “It’s time to interrupt the cycle, and the DDD welcomes the opportunity to play its part.”

According to Weigle, national recidivism statistics show that people in prison are not getting the skills needed to go directly to work. And once they get out, he said, they’re not making “an honest go of it,” either out of choice or because no one gives them a chance. That, in turn, means criminals burden society with a “lot of hidden costs.”

“We as a community cannot turn a blind eye on this,” Weigle added, pointing to U.S. Department of Justice research showing that keeping more than 2 million adults locked up in state and federal prisons cost $80 billion in 2010. “While each of these impacts individuals and families, we all pay in the form of higher taxes and decreased quality of life.”

Weigle said he’s following the lead of local U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who both have championed reducing recidivism and offering jobs to ex-convicts.

“We do not expect the DDD by itself to solve this problem, but we do hope other organizations will see what we’re doing and jump on board,” Weigle said.

The district’s initiative will formally begin Aug. 1 and is broken down into two programs.

The first, called Back in Stride, is part of the DDD’s commitment to ending homelessness in New Orleans. As part of it, the district has advocated for creation of permanent supportive housing, the hiring of a full-time outreach worker and building of a new homeless shelter.

The second program, the Second Chance, is aimed at getting jobs for ex-offenders who might normally be considered unemployable because of a felony conviction. A screening process will evaluate the type of crime committed, when it happened and the victim impact.

“I think it’s fair to say anyone who has a felony conviction is going to require a high level of scrutiny, but at the same time we should be open to hiring them,” Weigle said.

The first contract to be awarded as part of the New Paths Initiative will be given to the national company Block by Block, which offers sidewalk cleaning services, graffiti removal and landscaping in more than 70 cities.

While Block by Block has contracted with the DDD since 2007, this will be the first time it has promised in writing to try to hire the homeless and ex-convicts.

That’s no small matter, Weigle said, because Block by Block holds the biggest contract awarded by the district.

“We are trying to make more job opportunities available to folks trying to amp up their résumé,” said Blair McBride, the president of Block by Block.

He said the company operates a similar program in Cleveland, where it partners with a program called SEEDS of Change to offer people training in landscaping.

On average, 12 people every year in Cleveland gain skills and exposure to employers, often leading to full-time employment, McBride said. Organizers in New Orleans are hoping for similar results.

Right now, Block by Block is the only DDD contractor participating in the New Paths Initiative, but Weigle expects more companies to join because in awarding new contracts the DDD will favor firms that have programs designed to employ the homeless or former convicts.

“That’s how they’re being rewarded, by adding additional points” as their bids are scored, Weigle said. “One good way to see it is that between two balanced proposals, equal in quality, this would be the tie-breaker.”

The Urban League of Greater New Orleans will also participate by offering on-the-job training, outreach and recruitment, according to President and CEO Erika McConduit-Diggs.

“Our experience working with unemployed, underemployed and re-entry clients throughout our 77-year history has proven the importance of strong foundational ‘life’ skills as a (means) to sustained employment and reducing recidivism,” she said.

Basic skills training is critical for such job-seekers’ success, especially since so many might otherwise be considered unemployable, she said.

McBride said basic cleaning and landscaping programs are “fantastic first steps” for those trying to find their way back into the workforce.

“If you can’t start by working outside, picking up litter, removing weeds and basic stuff like that, where can you start?” he said. “It ultimately leads to increased self-esteem and helps break a cycle for people who are trying to break free out of the system.”