- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Eric Smith doesn’t ordinarily spend his Saturday mornings anxiously waiting in line to get inside a church.

Yet there he stood over the weekend among hundreds and hundreds of strangers, all of whom were profusely sweating from the midmorning sun and the prospect of a getting a job with one of the nation’s biggest big-box retailers at Costco’s job fair at Mount Horeb Baptist Church in Northeast.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Ward 5 D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie worked the line, which snaked around the corner onto Bladensburg Road and grew longer and shorter as applicants entered the church after descending from Metrobuses, cars and vans and arriving on foot.

The job fair was so successful that another is being planned for September — and I have the mayor on record promising to follow through.

Many of the job applicants Saturday were newly minted senior citizens, those old enough to get an AARP card at age 50, but scores of others were barely old enough to buy alcohol.

They all were hoping and praying, telling the mayor and other organizers of their unemployment dilemmas, the kind that do not show up in the monthly labor reports.

Mr. Smith was one such job seeker.

He knows word from Costco might not come this week or next, and he knows it’s because of what continues to place him between a rock and a very hard place.

“I’m an ex-offender, but it’s not who I am,” said Mr. Smith, who ordinarily would have been at a program with other offenders. “It’s what I served time for.”

What he did was shoot another human being in 1990, violating one of God’s commandments and man’s law.

Does he regret what happened? He said he does.

Is he trying to walk the straight and narrow? He said he is.

But Mr. Smith, a 41-year-old Washington native, is more than a returning citizen in search of steady employment in a city and nation where joblessness is as much of a measure of a man as local and national politics.

As a husband, father of disabled kids and grandfather, he said he keeps his eyes focused on what could be, like his son Angelo.

“He wants to go straight into the Navy after graduating,” said Mr. Smith, who earned his high-school-equivalency degree while behind bars and learned about the job fair from his parole officer.

In the meantime, Mr. Smith said he is “willing to take any position Costco offers, any position available,” including “physically demanding warehouse work.”

The mayor said that the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) was not participating in Saturday’s job fair. While the humidity and hotter-than-July sun didn’t spare his honor, he said his administration is prepared to “handle the aftermath” of the day-long job fair.

“DOES is gathering the information from the job fair for Costco and will follow up,” he said, shaking the outstretched hands of passers-by and nodding at job seekers in line.

Asked what jobs programs are in place to give Mr. Smith and other returning citizens a hand up, Mr. Gray named DOES’ Project Empowerment without hesitation.

The program is geared toward hard-to-employ applicants between 22 and 54 years old with challenges such as homelessness and substance-abuse problems or a history in the criminal justice system. It also works with the unskilled and undereducated.

“With unemployment high, even though the numbers are coming down, people in search of jobs can become easily frustrated,” Mr. Gray said.

Bob King, a latter-day version of legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, helped to organize the job fair as a follow-up to the sit-down with Costco representatives he helped put together at Mount Horeb in June.

On Saturday, Mr. King, also an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner in Northeast, was a bit surprised at the high volume of D.C. residents who turned out. He and other organizers and already working on an encore.

“We’ve got folks from every ward and we want residents in Ward 5 [where Costco will open] to get preference. We’re not interested in folks from Ward 9,” Mr. King said, a not-so-joking reference to adjacent Prince George’s County.

“Including walk-ins, we anticipate 2,500 applicants. We don’t want anybody to leave here without being seen,” he added.

The next step is to follow through on the demand by having another job fair in September, Mr. King said.

Costco isn’t the only job provider in town,” he said. “We’re working on behalf of ex-offenders, seniors and the mothers and fathers who need and want a helping hand.”

The mayor still has head above the scandalous waters of a public corruption probe, but time will soon tell whether the jobs programs he has in place will actually deliver what people want: a J-O-B.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.