Directed funding has allowed one ECC branch, the Civic Justice Corps, to begin a new term. The Civic Justice Corps provides a living stipend and college-scholarship dollars to young people restoring the Anacostia watershed on and off the river. Charles, Elaya, and Matthew are ineligible to join, though. To join the CJC, one must have been incarcerated at some point.
D.C.‘s high recidivism rate for youth offenders is widely acknowledged to be a crisis, and programs like these that re-engage young people help lower it. But ECC president and CEO Glen O’Gilvie appreciates the irony of a funding shortfall that leaves young people like Charles, Elaya, and Matthew on hold. “It’s a crisis we’re facing. We’ve got funding for kids who’ve done wrong, but none for kids who are five minutes away from doing wrong.”
When I explain the situation to Charles, Elaya, and Matthew, they’re less understanding of the irony that’s deprived them of a job. But, at the same time, they won’t return to the ECC office, where a Department of Employment Services representative can help displaced river keepers find jobs. They want to find their way without the ECC.
Elaya has begun work in a new job in a flower shop. “There’s no drama. It’s so peaceful.” Her face lights up as she talks about flower arranging, the customers, and, again, the lack of drama. Drama defines so much else in Elaya’s life, and this oasis means the world to her. She moves from friend’s home to relative’s to another friend’s every few days, not comfortable anywhere too long. Holding up her large purse, she says, “This is my house.” She’s wearing two shirts, and, in her bag, she carries extra clothes, a toothbrush, and a notebook in which she notes appointments and writes poems. She offers Charles, the only one of us in the Union Station food court who is shivering, one of her sweaters.
This early October night is the first time we’ve seen Charles in over two weeks. He shakes his head often and gives up little. He says, “I’ve been outside day and night because there’s too much drama inside the house.” The house is his sister’s and the drama involves his girlfriend and Charles’s love of gambling. He still hasn’t gotten the library card he’d planned to obtain. He’s short the $4 application fee. Elaya quickly says, “If you got a job instead of gambling, you’d have the $4.” Matthew chimes in, too: “If you get the library card, you can take that time to get away. If you just want to be in a quiet spot, you can stay there. You don’t even need a card to stay there and read.”
Matthew is waiting to hear back from D.C. Metro on his job application and is applying elsewhere. He’s moving through Billy Bathgate at a fast clip and enjoying it. But he’s restless.
He crumples up his napkin, drops it onto the table, and says, “See, this is how big an area I’ve traveled. I haven’t been nowhere and there’s so much more to see.” This leads to their dreaming of road trips, laughing, and moving past the realization they’ve accepted—that there’s no ECC job coming soon. When we part, they’re planning their next steps. This time, Matthew, not Charles, is so focused on reading that he doesn’t see us waving goodbye.
Later that week, I go to the ECC Center, where two of the active corps members talk about steps they’re taking. The ECC Center overlooks the Anacostia, and is a stone’s throw from the construction nightmare that will soon be the Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium. Rain fell the night before and we’re looking out on a very murky river. Sam and Bill (their names changed here to protect their identities) grew up beside the river and know all too well that rainfall equals increased pollution and, often, raw sewage washing into the Anacostia. They rattle off facts about river conditions, cancerous lesions found on bullfish, and the people who fish there. “I think they catch them to eat them,” Sam says. Bill believes they’re fishing for sport, but both acknowledge that it probably depends on how badly the fisherman needs food.
They’re equally articulate in discussing the new stadium’s impact on the community. “I think it’s a positive asset, but the money could be used on stuff to be put in the community, for the people … There’s too much free time and not enough stuff in the community to keep them [young people] occupied,” Bill says. “Their last resort is drugs and being on the streets,” Sam adds. “They become learned in the ways of the street by 13.”
Both Sam, almost 20, and Bill, 20, took to the streets at around that age and have seen it happen over and over. Sam has found his way to the ECC with the strong support of family and friends. “I decided I was getting too old to keep doing the same thing over and over. I wanted to do something positive instead of the same negative things I was doing. People in my family are doing positive things all the time.”
Bill can’t say the same. “I’m the only person in my family doing positive. I just wanted more for myself … I decided y’all [the police] aren’t going to keep locking me up. I’m going to find a job, get my money the legal way, so the next time y’all jump out at me, I’m going to throw a pay stub at you and keep it moving.”
Sam and Bill believe there are only two outcomes resulting from drug dealing and the streets—death and jail. Both believe young people need a good education to help them grow up straight. Neither completed high school, but Bill obtained his GED while locked up, and Sam is on track to obtain his within a few months.
Sam lives with his family, but Bill lives alone and budgets carefully to make ends meet on the ECC living stipend. His demeanor and way of talking make him seem older than his 20 years, and with good reason. Of all the young people I’ve met, he’s the only one truly flying solo, dependent on himself for everything. He could make more money working another job but has chosen the ECC because he values the scholarship dollars and training it offers. So he’s looking for a second job to supplement his income: he’s posted his résumé on Monster.com and checks the Post classifieds daily.
As the month progresses, Sam and Bill gain exposure to green-collar organizations that may hire them post-ECC. Away from the river, Elaya and Charles face new challenges.
Elaya’s employer had to let staff go and Elaya, as last in, got pushed out first. But she doesn’t miss a beat. When we next meet in the Union Station food court, she has already submitted several job applications. She collects more for herself and for Charles from the food-court restaurants. With her 15-pound purse and her apartment guide beside her, she begins filling them out, while Charles works up his courage to make a confession.
In the two weeks since we last met, Charles has crashed down from the highs he’s been chasing for years. He’s hit rock bottom and has, at least one night, slept on the streets. This evening, he’s closing out Day 5 of being clean and focused.
He shows me the library card he’s finally acquired. He tells Elaya of his addictions and says that “since I was 14, I’ve gambled on the streets and with the drugs. I know gambling’s always going to be a part of my life. I’m addicted. I’m just being honest.” Elaya has seen many addicted to crack and was herself a crack baby. Her response comes swiftly: “If you just lay down, defeated, and say, ‘This is me; I don’t want to change nothing,’ that’s being weak. Weakness is not a desirable trait. It could always be worse. You look like a king compared to kids on the street.”
Charles looks away. We sit in a pocket of silence surrounded by food-court chatter. Then he takes the candy-shop job application and pen she offers.
Their shared confusion over what to put in the “Reason for Leaving” box beside their ECC jobs breaks down the tension. When a businessman bearing a striking resemblance to Mr. Magoo puts down the copy of the Post he’s reading and helps them come up with appropriate, accurate explanations, they relax even more. They stay relaxed until Charles realizes they’re actually going to take the next step—giving the application to a potential employer.
Elaya marches into the candy shop and hands over her application. Charles tucks in his shirt and walks in, walks out, walks back in, then turns around and says he can’t do this. We assure him he can and, finally, he does. The smile he wears when he comes back out confirms just how big a step this was.
On Halloween, Sam and I meet. Bill can’t join and, without him, Sam is quieter. But he relaxes and opens up when talking about his approaching birthday and his surprise at reaching 20. “I’m just happy to see it. A lot of stuff was happening [on the streets] and I was happy to get to 18. Twenty? I’m glad to see 20 … And the biggest thing I want to do now is graduate [from the ECC]. That would be a big step for me.”
Some of Sam’s friends walk by. Sam looks their way. Then I realize he knows Elaya. This connection breaks the ice further and I give him the good news: Elaya has found and started a new job.
We part outside the Navy Yard metro station, two blocks from the new stadium. Tired workers and parents with kids in costumes hurry past while we take a last minute to speculate on the stadium touted to benefit the Anacostia waterfront. I ask if he thinks many people on the other side of the river, in Anacostia proper, will be able to afford tickets. Sam shrugs. “I sure hope so,” he says. “I’d like to go.” With a parting smile, he heads home. He’s completed another day in the ECC program, which he’s determined to finish. He’s moved one day closer to the birthday he once wasn’t sure he’d live to see. Sam has lived, for a day at least, the happy ending the others just might get to yet.