The abandoned house on Martin Luther King Drive used to be part of the daily scenery of Byron Cabiness's life, just as were the drug dealers and empty storefronts lining this seedy block in Jersey City.
But this pocket of poverty, tucked in a city of 230,000 people just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, is slowly turning around.
For the past few months, Mr. Cabiness and 12 other young men have been gutting walls, installing floors, and painting. And Cabiness has developed, for the first time, a stake in his neighborhood and a desire to learn.
"I've become a pro at this," he says. "I'm a general contractor."
For Cabiness, a high school dropout who until recently was on probation for a minor offense, the change was propelled by two ex-convicts who are working to keep troubled youths on the right side of the law. Their tool: the Friends of the Lifers Youth Corps.
Harvey George and Richard Hochman created the program four years ago after serving sentences for helping a friend they knew had committed a murder. Their nonprofit organization buys abandoned or foreclosed homes, gets local contractors to do the work under the condition that they hire at least two unemployed youths, and puts the units back on the market in areas often starved for affordable housing.
Youths must attend a state-funded, 16-week, hands-on training course where they learn basic construction skills and are encouraged to study for their high school equivalency diploma, or GED.
With its combination of house restoration, job creation for nonskilled youths - some on probation or parole - and the support of local businesses, Friends of the Lifers Youth Corps aims to respond to the decaying core of an urban community.
An avenue out
Roy McCarthy, who teaches at an outreach program where troubled youths study for the GED, learn carpentry skills, and build homes in south Sacramento, calls it an "avenue out."
"We have to take the training to the students, and not the students to the training," says Mr. McCarthy, whose program is funded with state and private money. "Then these young people can see change, they can see there's life outside drugs and gangs, they can see the barriers to unemployment coming down."
"And when you start building homes and putting yards in front of them," McCarthy adds, "people start fixing their neighborhood."
The bright-green sign painted on the entrance door of Friends of the Lifers Youth Corps, a cramped storefront on Martin Luther King Drive, captures its spirit: "We recycle our garbage: Why not our youth?"
"We need to produce youths who can function," Mr. George explains.
Indeed, he is leading by example. "I'm in the business of recycling the human being," George says. "I'm a recycled human being myself."
George entered East Jersey State Prison as a high school dropout and father of three. But in prison, he took classes and directed the Lifers Group, a program in which prisoners bluntly counseled teenagers into staying out of trouble. Sentenced to life, he was paroled 17 years later, by which time he had a GED.
Mr. Hochman, like George, wanted to turn his prison experience into something positive. Before his 15-year prison sentence, he had been a successful businessman, managing several clothing outlet stores in New Jersey.
The pair teamed up and, with a staff of volunteers and a small office, created a youth program headquartered in Jersey City's toughest neighborhoods.
Three years later, the group evolved into housing development, taking advantage of a federal program that encourages home rehabilitation and purchase.
Today, it has a budget of $200,000 and $5 million invested in 31 units of real estate in New Jersey and New York.
"You can't beat this idea," says Councilman Brian Coleman of Irvington, a town of 61,000 on the outskirts of Jersey City where Friends of the Lifers has restored and put back on the tax rolls two formerly abandoned homes.
Coleman has proposed that Irvington sell Friends of the Lifers abandoned or foreclosed properties (the town has 114 of them) for $1 each in a long-term rehabilitation effort that would train and employ local residents. The town and Friends of the Lifers are finalizing the deal.
"You deal with neighborhood blight, you give juveniles work, you give them skills and you show young people who feel they don't have a place in society a chance to be of service," Coleman says.
A tough task
It is a tough task, something George and Hochman understand well. But their example speaks volumes to the kids involved with their program.
On one of most frigid cold afternoons of the year, Jolon Ross, a high school graduate who works for Friends of the Lifers, is standing on the street corner with her friends, surrounded by the blight of the notorious Martin Luther King Drive.
"It's all around you, it's everywhere you go," says the teenager, referring to drugs. "A lot of things happen: You got ... pregnancy, jail; you've got to watch out!"
Despite their record, George and Hochman became entrepreneurs with a mission, and that isn't lost on Ross and others who admit they could easily have ended in prison, too.
"For them to be in jail that time and start a business, it's pretty good," Ms. Ross says. "I'd rather be successful out here ... than be locked up. But it's up to you if you want to take the help or not."