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Homewood Bound: How Some In The Neighborhood Put Their Lives Back Together After Time Behind Bars

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Students at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh spend 10 weeks learning the basics of masonry. These two students are in their first few days of the program and spend time mixing mortar and practicing bricklaying.

A periwinkle frog with geometric markings crouches in a sea of red, its toes splayed out as it prepares to leap. The painting now hangs in Dwayne Drummond’s Homewood apartment. But he remembers when he found it in somebody else’s trash.

“That’s when I was at a bad period,” he said. “So that was really just like, you know, like a frog bounces, and he jumps back. ... I always put that in my mind, like that’s the bounceback.”

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Dwayne Drummond stands in a lot in Homewood on Friday, May 31, 2019. Drummond supports his six children with jobs as a window installer and employee at McDonald's.

At the time, Drummond made deliveries for Amazon while also working at McDonald’s. The hours were long, and he had no benefits, but he had six children to support. And with a drug-dealing record that included time behind bars, Drummond took the jobs he could get.

Still, Drummond said, he could not get ahead.

But then he enrolled at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, located in an old Westinghouse factory in Homewood. He learned about the program from a friend.

“And he's like, ‘Man I make $22 an hour. I went to the Trade Institute,’” Drummond remembered.

The Trade Institute offers a free 10-week masonry course. On a vast shop floor, students work at different stations, stacking bricks into simple walls or more advanced structures.

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The site at 7800 Susquehanna St. is home to several entrepreneurial activities, including the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh and Homewood businesses.

Eighty percent of students have been incarcerated, but the Trade Institute helps them get hired in a range of fields, including manufacturing and carpentry. Nearly all graduates end up with jobs that pay at least $15 an hour, according to the institute.

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Donta Green, Trade Institute of Pittsburgh job developer and case manager, says the program provides wrap-around services for students. He helps people who return from prison get a driver's license and access counseling or housing services.

Donta Green is the program’s job developer and case manager. He said the trade school is designed to meet the many challenges people with criminal records face, such as not having a driver’s license or housing.

“I think the cool thing about this place is that we meet everybody where they are, pick apart different pieces of their life that needs to be put back together, and come up with a strategy on how we put those things back together,” Green said.

Perhaps most crucially, Green said, the Trade Institute mentors students so they can build healthy relationships, develop good work habits, and manage life struggles.

“We can train anyone to make them employable,” he said. "But to keep the job is what we're in the business of doing.”

The program is rigorous: Only one-third of those who enroll finish. But nearly 400 students have graduated from the Trade Institute over the last decade, and about 60 percent of alumni are still working one year after completing the program, according to the institute.

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Each day at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh begins with a circle where students and staff talk about their concerns and their accomplishments.

Among those who have graduated, only 8 percent have ended up back behind bars, according to the Trade Institute. Pennsylvania’s three-year recidivism rate, in contrast, has consistently hovered around 60 percent.

Dwayne Drummond got a job as a window installer after completing his training in January. While enrolled in the program, he still worked full-time at McDonald’s and took shifts after classes ended.

But now, Drummond said, he has good pay and benefits. Plus, he said he feels motivated every day.

“It may start out hard,” he said. “But once we’ve got the window in, we wipe it down it's looking good. It's every day: ‘Hey I did that. Well, I need to work on that.’”

Drummond still works at McDonald’s. But his ultimate goal is to start his own business.

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Dave Jenkins, owner of The Dream BBQ on N. Braddock Avenue, spent two and a half years in prison. He then saved for nearly two years to buy the Homewood storefront. Now, he says all five of his employees have been previously incarcerated.

‘We don't look at your past’

Dave Jenkins also dreamed of starting a business when he got out of prison about 15 years ago. But like many who come out of incarceration, he had no credit history. That made it hard to get a loan.

“I'm a criminal. They [weren’t] going to give me a loan,” he said. “I'm fresh out of jail: ‘Hey can I get some money to start a business?’ Nah, I don’t think so.”

But today, three massive barrel smokers stand outside what’s now Jenkins’ The Dream BBQ. And each day, a cook tosses racks of ribs on the grill well before the lunch rush.

Jenkins worked two years to save enough money to buy the Homewood storefront, all the while picking people’s brains about how to run a business.

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Aaron, a ten-year employee at The Dream BBQ in Homewood, prepares to plop down a piece of meat on one of the restaurant's three outdoor cookers on Monday, July 1, 2019.

Fifteen years later, he now employs five people – all of whom have been incarcerated.

“That’s all I hire because I understand what it’s like - I’ve been there,” Jenkins said. “For the most part that’s all they want, is a chance."

Jenkins says he could get a loan from a bank today. But when he made some upgrades a few years ago, he instead borrowed from a financial institution called Bridgeway Capital.

Shawn Thomas, entrepreneur lending director at Bridgeway Capital, works with dozens of businesses in Homewood. He stands inside 7800 Susquehanna Street, where Bridgeway plans to open a business center this fall. Once construction is complete, community members will be able to use the space for meetings and to receive counseling on starting a business.

Bridgeway’s Shawn Thomas made that loan. He said his company invests in places like Homewood, which banks often view as too risky, and he said that support extends to people who have records.

“We don't look at your past,” Thomas said. “We look at your future and what you're trying to do.”

Bridgeway’s funders include local foundations and churches. Thomas said he works with about 50 Homewood businesses, about a third of whose owners have done time.

Thomas warns clients that starting a new business isn’t easy. But he said clients who have spent time in prison are just as successful as clients who haven’t.

“When you look at the pressure that they were in beforehand, this is a little bit easier I would say. You know when you’re incarcerated, it’s day to day survival,” Thomas said.

Raub Robinson has been the security guard and greeter at the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Center since the center came to Homewood last fall. He spent a decade behind bars and, when he first got out, he worked at a steel mill.

‘If I can do it, you can do it’

Bridgeway plans to open a business center this fall in the same Westinghouse facility that houses the Trade Institute. There it will join another resource hub the University of Pittsburgh brought to the neighborhood last year.

Homewood’s Community Engagement Center is located on once bustling Homewood Avenue. And security guard Raub Robinson is the first person most visitors see. He used to deal drugs, and says old acquaintances are sometimes confused to see him as a greeter for the center.

“I know so many people, and people you know still thinking in the back of their mind, like, ‘What's up. How you doing? What are you doing here?’” Robinson said.

Robinson spent 10 years in prison, and his boss considers that an asset.

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Daren Ellerbee is the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Center in Homewood. The center helps to link residents to job opportunities, and Ellerbee seeks to create a safe and welcoming space for visitors. She stands in front of a 1935 photo of Homewood Avenue, where the center is now located.

Center director Daren Ellerbee said she didn’t worry about Robinson’s record, because he had made it through a vetting process. And when she was looking to fill Robinson’s position, Ellerbee told colleagues she wanted to find someone with a relatable story: “someone that could say to a young man or a young woman in the center, ‘I see what's going on. Please take advantage of what the center has to offer. You could go down the wrong path and I don't want you to.’”

For his part, Robinson said, some people with records might not feel comfortable visiting the center.

“But I keep a smile on my face to let them know that I'm not down on them for what they do or how they might feel,” Robinson said. “I give them opportunity, like if I can do it, you can do it.”

Ellerbee said that kind of connection helps make the center, and the support it provides, feel like part of the neighborhood.

This story is Part 3 of a series exploring how Homewood, and residents who have spent time behind bars, are trying to rebuild after the War on Drugs.

Adam Tunnard contributed to this report.