- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - James Davis dropped out of middle school in eighth grade to sell crack on the streets of South Richmond.

By 15, he was homeless, still selling, and spending nights in motel rooms when he could afford them.

Things spiraled downward from there, until, at 31, he had a moment of clarity after he snapped out of a withdrawal-induced psychosis in a glass observation cell at Henrico County Jail.

“I knew that destroying families while I gained money was wrong,” he said. “I couldn’t profit off of anyone’s demise like that anymore.”

That newfound determination to get clean and get his life together led him to a city department created two years ago with the sole mission of lifting residents out of poverty: the Office of Community Wealth Building.

Davis exited the department’s workforce training program with, among other things, a Department of Criminal Justice Services certification to work security, and he’s been employed full time in the field ever since. He currently makes about $10 an hour.

But more than just helping him find a job, the program led Davis to a mission: He’s emerged as one of the most vocal citizen advocates for the department. As his life has improved, he’s vowed to help others find the same support he did.

“I took everything they had to offer. … Their program inspired me so much, I’ve probably put 25 or 30 people in there myself,” said Davis, now 34 and a resident of Fairfield Court. “You know, for a while, I was using my money to get people on the bus to take them down there, because a lot of these people don’t have the initial money to go.”

The department’s director, Reggie Gordon, put Davis front and center earlier this year when they delivered the department’s annual report to the city, asking him to address the City Council about the impact the program has had on his life.

“The humanity sometimes gets lost in the data,” Gordon said. “And I think it’s important for Richmond to appreciate these are the real stories. Some of this is shocking. Some of it is sobering. Some of it seems unbelievable. And I think our office is tasked with synthesizing it.”

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Stories like Davis‘ command attention. But just as the Community Wealth Building department has begun winning over supporters in the impoverished neighborhoods it aims to help, the program has faced increased scrutiny as the City Council debates its proposed $2.1 million budget for the coming fiscal year.

Included in that is a $400,000 increase over last year’s funding to hire six additional caseworkers to provide “intensive intervention” to help get people jobs.

A majority of council members tentatively agreed to strip that additional funding last week. The council members made the decision as they combed the budget for money that could be diverted to provide raises to police and firefighters, who are leaving the city in record numbers for better-paying jurisdictions.

“I could not live with myself if I agreed to give you all of this money,” Councilwoman Reva Trammell told Gordon during a recent budget work meeting. “There have been 21 homicides this year - 21.”

Gordon, the former CEO of the Red Cross’ Greater Richmond Chapter, said the city’s crime problems and poverty problems are interconnected, and to truly address crime, the city must also address the conditions that lead to a quarter of its residents living below the poverty line.

“It’s unfortunate this process sort of pits us against each other in a way because we definitely agree that we need a strong police department,” said Gordon, who is paid $142,000 annually to lead the department. “But thanks to the work of this council and other community citizens, we’re the first city in the nation that says, ‘Here is how we move the needle.’ “

But council members expressed skepticism about the degree to which the department has moved the needle. The most commonly cited statistic regarding the department - Mayor Levar Stoney noted it just last month as he announced his proposed budget - is the department’s eventual goal to lift 1,000 people out of poverty a year.

Gordon acknowledged that number is more of an aspiration than something officials can realistically expect to achieve in the foreseeable future - at least not without dramatically increasing funding.

Instead, in response to questions from council members, he said that with the department’s budget of $1.28 million last year, it was only able to provide enough support to move 75 residents out of poverty.

With the increased funding proposed by the mayor this year, Gordon said he expected he could get that number up to 150 residents a year.

Those numbers come with some caveats, Gordon said: The department does not consider someone to have worked their way out of poverty until they are making at least $15 an hour - enough to mean they no longer qualify for or rely on government assistance.

Gordon said the department helped many more people obtain employment at lower wages. He said 212 people who participated in programs offered by the department’s workforce development center gained employment last fiscal year and a total of about 18,000 people visited the center.

“Hundreds of other people got jobs that, you know, moved up the economic ladder,” Gordon said. “So there is a lot of work that’s going on. But we want to be really honest about the number of people who have reached that plateau of no longer needing public benefits.”

Statistics aside, several City Council members made clear they were not impressed with some of the department’s spending decisions thus far: One questioned why the city paid to create its own culinary training center when Reynolds Community College is planning to open its own program in Richmond’s East End. Gordon said the city’s program predates Reynolds’, but that the city will work to make sure they complement each other.

Another wondered why the city decided to create its own workforce development center when there is already a regionally funded program offering similar services. Gordon said the city’s is more intensive.

Councilman Parker C. Agelasto signaled he was beginning to run out of patience.

“You know, 75 jobs for the efforts of 25 people isn’t satisfactory,” he said. “And I think one slide said you should get 150. Capacity in this department has been building and building, but at some point we need to see some of the results.”

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From Davis‘ perspective, the program is already delivering results.

He said he considers it vital to ending the cycle of poverty that can lead kids down the kind of path he found himself on.

Davis was born at VCU Medical Center. The second youngest of five siblings, he was raised in South Richmond by his mom, who drove a school bus for Richmond Public Schools and, in Davis‘ words, gave him a decent childhood.

But at 10, he started hanging out with older guys and suffered from their influence. In sixth grade, he stopped going to Elkhardt Elementary School regularly. In eighth grade, he dropped out altogether.

“We wanted to run the streets and make money because we didn’t have money,” he said. “And that was selling drugs. Anything we could find, we would sell it - me and the crew I was running with. That was a different culture in those years. You had kids who were making more money than their teachers. You had kids that were driving to school in middle school. Kids had cars. They’d barter them from crack addicts.”

How does a 13-year-old sell crack? In 1990s Richmond, notorious for open-air drug markets, it was easy, Davis said.

“What you have to understand is some of these communities if you stand on the corner, people come,” he said. “Because they know the area’s where it’s at. And that’s just how it is.”

Things snowballed. Fast.

His mom moved to Pennsylvania. At 14, he stayed behind, initially living with family members, then family friends, then, on his own - homeless, sleeping in abandoned apartments, an old boat in a friend’s parent’s backyard and, eventually, motel rooms.

“It became not just selling drugs just to do it,” he said. “It became selling drugs just for shelter. So now you’re selling drugs for shelter and also for food every day. This is becoming a life. And you get deeper and deeper and deeper into it. Now you’re all the way out there because you’re in the streets and now you’re 15 years old.

“A lot of kids in these cities are grown men at 15 years old. It’s sad. I had my first friend die when I was 14. You know, I’ve lost 15 friends to murder.”

Davis only smoked marijuana at first, but eventually started taking pills. Painkillers like Percocet and anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax were his favorites.

His family worried but felt more or less powerless to help.

“You don’t know what it’s like knowing the kind of life I knew you were living,” Davis‘ sister, Natasha Randolph, told him during a visit on a recent Sunday afternoon. “Every time I heard something bad on the news, I think it’s my brother. I stopped watching. It’s hard.”

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Davis managed to avoid serious criminal charges, but he wound up in Henrico County Jail in 2013 a few days before Christmas on charges that he failed to appear in court in connection to unpaid child support. He was also charged with driving with a revoked license.

The ensuing detox, particularly from his heavy Xanax use, sent him into what he described as psychosis.

He came to in one of the jail’s glass observation rooms. A few days later, they moved him to a more traditional cell, where he was alone except for a camera on the ceiling pointed at him. The only reading material he was provided was a Bible. He said he started reading it and started to pray.

When he was eventually released the next month, a caseworker who had been working with him on his child support payments introduced him to the Office of Community Wealth Building’s workforce center.

He took to it - signing up for every job-training program they offered. He’s licensed to drive a forklift. He can provide in-home health care. He’s certified to work security jobs. He also got what the department calls soft training: practice job interviews, résumé help and the like.

His first job out of the program was in-home health care. But he only lasted a month. It paid minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.

“It’s not enough,” he said.

He found a security job that pays $10 an hour. Still not enough, but better. He’s currently working to get his GED.

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To the extent that Davis represents a success story for the department, he also underscores its limits.

Gordon, the department’s director, said that after taking the job, he quickly realized that a lot of the strategic planning that led to the department’s creation overlooked barriers that are keeping residents from getting jobs. Some are obvious, like felony convictions. Some are not so obvious, like inexperience in offices and other professional settings and the social norms that go with them.

In Davis‘ case, it’s the fact that, no matter how smart he is and how much training the city can get him, he only has an eighth-grade education.

“That’s why this is hard,” Gordon said. “James is moving, but he’s not there yet.”

Gordon said it comes down to funding, which for him brings things back to this year’s budget debate.

The mayor, in what is thus far his only attempt to publicly sway the budget debates, put out a statement urging the council to restore the funds. Several City Council members, including Cynthia Newbille and Ellen Robertson, have promised to fight to keep money for the program in the budget.

It’s just too important, Robertson said: “There are a lot of people that are living in poverty that are aggressively striving to get to a place where they are living a sustainable life. We’ve got a lot of success stories. We need to fund them. Period.”

A hard date for the final vote has not been set, but the council’s first public hearing on the budget will take place Monday at 6 p.m.

Davis said he plans to do what he can to advocate on behalf of the department’s budget. At this point, he said he’s dedicated himself to doing everything he can to help people around him - among the projects he’s currently working on is creating an app that can help connect city residents to services that exist to help them, because he says most just don’t know what’s out there and what they can take advantage of to better themselves.

“I feel like I’m stable,” he said. “I feel like, right now, I’m sustaining myself because I refuse to go back to the streets.

“Imagine, if you’ve got a room full of five children and all five children are sick. If I put a sixth child in there, he’s going to become sick as well. That’s the culture. You’re in a culture that’s sick. … For me, I just want to keep pushing, and I don’t know what the future holds.”

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