I don't know his name, so I'll call him "William," after my uncle who lived wrong and died young.
This William had seen a lot of life. His hair had hints of gray and time had touched his face. He was probably a father, possibly a grandfather.
He sat tentatively on a folding chair in the basement of Antioch Baptist Church. He guarded his space closely, looking neither right nor left. That's how I knew he hadn't been free long.
When he stood to speak, he confirmed it. In and out of jail for years, he was out again. This time, he meant it for good. At 52, he'd been in the street life for so long, he admitted he didn't know how to live straight.
"I just tell myself, keep doing the next right thing," he said.
I haven't seen William since he walked out of my church two or three years ago. His plea for support stayed with me because of its poignancy and desperation. I've heard variations on it dozens of times.
I'm the former pianist for Antioch's Open Door Worship, an informal meeting for ex-offenders with prayer, scripture, a message and time for them to ask for support.
In my time at the services, I've seen scores of ex-offenders come into the basement hall on Sunday afternoons. Some walk in warily, their faces taut as they evaluate the space and its occupants. They sit stiffly, arms close to their sides, not ready to release and relax yet. Others come with friends or family. Some stumble over hymns they haven't sung since childhood. Others don't open their mouths; church is completely new. Some drift away. Others return and settle in. They come in trying to stay straight and wishing for something just as important: a job.
The Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry says about 5,000 to 7,000 ex-offenders return to the county from prison each year. Four out of five come to Cleveland. So it's important for the region that they get work. Jobless ex-offenders contribute to the city's unemployment rate — 8.1 percent in February — and poverty rate of 34 percent. But their pasts make them virtually unemployable.
From my post at the piano, I've seen the depth of the problem and the limits of the current solutions. Most of those coming home are African-American males, a group that has a high unemployment rate, returning to a city where work is scarce. The Cleveland metro area had the nation's second worst record for job growth last year, according to the Labor Department. Because of their pasts, former inmates often sink among the crowd of job seekers.
Pivotal research shows they tend to stay at the bottom. Harvard University sociologist Devah Pager sent four testers in Milwaukee to apply for jobs with fake resumes and backgrounds — similar work history and education, but differences in race and criminal history. Two testers were clean, while two had "committed" low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Pager found the white male applicants, regardless of criminal history, got more second interviews than the African-American applicant who was clean. The African-American applicant with the criminal record got the least attention.
I don't doubt Pager's findings, because I've seen them for myself. Michael Brown, a former Open Door participant, has looked for steady work for seven years, since he finished serving a sentence for burglary. It was his second conviction; his first was a drug offense.
At first, I thought Brown was a deacon. His somber suits, precisely cut hair and black-framed glasses made him seem like the kind of rock that churches were built on. For much of his adult life, though, Brown was a functioning drug addict. He worked at a bank and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. He's also a veteran.
But his past has kept him out of meaningful work. He enrolled in Cleveland-area programs to help ex-offenders seek jobs. When an application asked if he had a felony conviction, Brown gave the recommended answer: "Yes, will explain in interview."
"They called me and asked me to be more specific," he says. "I was specific, and they turned me down." He can't get a glance from fast-food restaurants. "I just never got called for those positions," he says.
While Brown's faith keeps him buoyed — he's self-published a book that promotes a biblical approach to recovery — he'll have to fight to stay afloat.
Researcher Harry Holzer found men like Brown are mostly relegated to odd jobs. Their earning power is as depressed as their job prospects. Holzer found they were likely to return to neighborhoods devoid of jobs and to friends and family who "presumably provide relatively few contacts to the world of legitimate work."
Holzer could have been talking about Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood, near Antioch. More than one-third of the people in Fairfax live in poverty. That instability has starved the small shops that might have hired a local guy just out of jail. Now empty lots line Cedar Avenue.
Employers now routinely use background checks to screen applicants for criminal history. They're trying to protect themselves against potential liability if the employee causes harm in some way. But automatically discarding ex-offenders leads to another possible liability: discrimination against applicants of color, because there are higher rates of arrests and convictions among Hispanics and African-Americans. Background checks can also snare people arrested but never charged or convicted.
Cleveland has joined a national movement designed to help ex-offenders get into the labor market. In 2011, the city government instituted a Ban the Box policy, stripping questions about criminal history from its job applications. The question comes up later in the application process, after the manager has met the potential hire, to encourage the manager to size up the ex-offender's qualifications and evaluate the whole person.
Ex-offenders can qualify for the state's new Certificate of Qualification for Employment, which debuted in early 2013. The certificate is available to applicants who can convince a judge they are not an "unreasonable safety risk." It removes limits on ex-felons' ability to work in professions that normally would be off-limits. (For example, folks with a theft conviction can't teach.) For employers, it offers protection from negligent hiring liability. The program provides a way out of the trap that mires ex-offenders. But only about 100 people went through the laborious petition process and obtained certificates in the program's first year.
A more far-reaching solution would be for the area's business, social and civic leaders to promote and increase small-business development in neighborhoods where ex-offenders settle. Such community-based enterprises could hire ex-felons or even be run by them, and they would bring economic vitality to some of Cleveland's poorest areas.
Local leaders need to join forces and commit to solving a problem that's hidden in plain sight. For if William's and Michael Brown's fortunes languish and decline, so will Cleveland's.