Ticket Out of Poverty Gets Stubbed

Cut from the state budget, a youth work program seeks new funding

IN a basement classroom/hangout at the Roosevelt Towers housing project, teens are slouched down on the sofas, some clasping cushions to their chests. It's been nearly three weeks since a program that was supposed to be their ticket out of the projects was canceled, and the students are still trying to make sense of it. Mayra Morales, a sharp 15-year-old with waist-length hair, says, ``If it were a Brattle Street [a wealthy street in Cambridge] program, then they'd do whatever it took to keep it alive.''

The canceled program is the six-year-old Cambridge Work Force Unemployment Prevention program. Through counseling, classes, a school liaison, and jobs, Work Force acts as a Head Start for teens to break the cycle of poverty in public housing. Run out of the Cambridge Housing Authority, the $250,000 program operates within three public housing projects.

Work Force was part of a $5.3 million line-item veto of services to public housing tenants including literacy, English language tutoring, and job development. Because of the state's fiscal crisis, $1.4 billion has been cut from the budget in the last 14 months.

``These are the kinds of programs designed to make public housing tenants self-sufficient, to give them the ability to pay taxes,'' says Steven Swanger, director of the Tenant Services Department of the Cambridge Housing Authority.

``We're not in an environment in which we are weighing good cuts against bad cuts, we are being forced to make cuts that are almost all bad,'' says Marcia Hertz, press secretary for the executive office of communities and development. Ironically, the notification of the cut came the same day the Work Force received a $100,000 award from the Ford Foundation for being one of the 10 best government programs. The program is now winding down.

Work Force is different from many youth-jobs programs in that it starts with younger students, operates out of where they live, and offers a variety of jobs.

Residents can join when they are 13. They receive a small stipend for attending after-school classes where a teacher/counselor teaches them about values, conflict-resolution, and decision-making. A school liaison keeps track of their attendance at school and progress. At 14, they start a series of jobs. The program subsidizes their minimum-wage salary, part of which comes from the student's employer. By age 15 or 16, they learn how to conduct themselves on job interviews.

The three staff members stay in close contact so participants don't fall through the cracks.

``If a kid can't access a tutor, I'll call Wendy [Powell, the school liaison] and she helps with whatever is needed,'' says Elizabeth Hart, the teacher/counselor.

AS the job developer, Mark Saunders ferrets out new employers, monitors work performance, and supports the kid on the job. He says the idea is let them try out several jobs, ``because most adults don't know what they want to do. Getting early exposure is the only way to get a sense of the environment of a workplace.''

One hundred employers have been involved in the program; including mom-and-pop stores, law offices, and banks. The jobs were often unusual fare for teens; one did inventory on a computer for a biotechnology firm.

Ed Soul, general manager of Cambridge Racquet and Fitness Club, has hired 14 participants to do small maintenance jobs.

Mr. Soul runs a tight ship. ``They must learn to stay busy, take pride in their job, and be polite to the guests. If they aren't, I blow them out fast.''

But even if participants do get fired, the program doesn't give up on them.

Mr. Swanger says it's the ``conspiracy of nurturing in these kids' lives that will give them the confidence and sophistication that white middle-class kids from the suburbs have.''

Participant John Correia says he dropped out of school because he did not like it. Asked why this program works, he says, ``They care about you. This job ain't 9-5. Steve takes me on weekend trips; we've gone waterskiing.''

``Steve'' is Stephen Davis, director of Work Force. His tall, kindly figure is a fixture at Roosevelt Towers (where, incidently, he grew up). Mr. Davis says the staff goes the extra mile with the kids: staffers go to graduations, school plays, concerts, and dances. ``It could be a 70-80 hour work-week, there's that much need out there,'' he says.

``John never had any real men in his life; his father wasn't around much,'' says Mary Correia, John's mother. ``And he got into trouble with gangs and dropped out. But Steve stayed on him and stayed on him.''

John was voted most improved student at the vocation-technical school and his leadership qualities are making him a positive role model.

Schools have welcomed the program. ``Work Force has a belief in the kids that the kids can do it,'' says Margarita Alvarez, principal of Longfellow Elementary, a school that works with the program.

Cutting this program, says Swanger, is penny-wise and pound-foolish. ``It costs the state $10,000 to support a mother with kids. If we kept 25 kids off AFDC it would pay for the program. And that's not even considering the savings from not paying for drug treatment, prisons, pregnancies, and lost tax base.''

``We want to see this rise like Phoenix out of the ashes,'' he says.

The Ford Foundation has offered assistance in finding other foundation funding. And Swanger is hoping that even in this tight economy, the business community will produce an ``angel.''

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