O n the third floor of a Newhallville house, abandoned for years, JoJo watches her crew members rake piles of refuse—toys and newspapers and old clothes—into garbage bags, tossing them out the window to an industrial-sized dumpster. Her hard hat is yellow, with a message scrawled in black permanent marker: “Have Faith.” She’s made it through a tough adolescence, in and out of court-managed supervision, in and out of serious trouble. “I was just obviously headed down the wrong track. I woke up one day, something shifted. I wanted to work, you know? To contribute.”
Johanna Cartagena (the guys on her crew call her JoJo) is 25 now. At 21, she met Dan Jusino, Executive Director of Emerge CT. Emerge is run by Jusino and his business manager Mark Wilson—they’re the soul of the organization, which provides transitional work and support to ex-offenders with little education and limited work experience, helping men and women exiting the prison system re-enter the workforce with job training, education and life skills in real time.
“Remember, this isn’t just transitional work!” Jusino says energetically. He’s almost yelling, waving his hands through the air, making eye contact with everyone in sight. “Yes, we get them on job sites, we get them reading, we get them training. But this is about changing how people think, and how they make decisions,” he explains, standing on the first floor of the nearly gutted house. On a typical day, Jusino’s clad in a yellow vest and work boots, just like the rest of his crew. The Puerto Rican, he calls himself; his workers are Mami or Papi.
“Papi,” he says to a crew member. “Run upstairs and bring this to Don.” Jusino’s been through the system himself. “I was just like my guys here once, but someone gave me a chance.” When his crew members first arrive to the program, it’s all about the basics: getting them to sleep well, to eat well, maintain a schedule. Pull their pants up. “See? I tell Ernie here he’s gotta find his waist,” Jusino exclaims, whacking a sheepishly smiling Ernie Northrup, 26, on the back. “If he doesn’t find his waist, I’ll find it for him.”
Small details can be overwhelming. “We assume because they’re adults that they do this. But they don’t. Nobody’s taught them. The small things sometimes seem insurmountable, but we work with them to ease their fears and change those patterns,” Jusino says. Most of the crew start out reading at a 6th or 7th grade level. That’s a surefire recipe for poverty, says Jusino, so as part of the model they complete a literacy component (about 100 hours) to get them to a 10th grade level. At that reading level, they can move on to access other training and support programs. “They don’t always want to do that part, they think they just want to work,” Jusino says. “But we get them through it, and they’re good. These folks are smart; they just need to become more confident.”
After tackling literacy, there’s an upfront requirement of 16 hours of community service, followed by another 34 over the course of the program, before they can start work on crews doing things like construction, property management or landscaping. Sixty people have moved through the program so far, working up to 24 hours a week on payroll, paying taxes, for up to 26 weeks. Of those, 33 have found long-term work. Four have gone on to further certified training or education. “We lost some of them in the beginning with the intense learning curve,” Jusino explains. “But we’re getting stronger.” Help comes from, among others, United Way of Greater New Haven, Workforce Alliance, and Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven (NHS).
It’s an unpleasantly hot weekday morning, but the crew is focused and friendly. “That’s the kind of attitude we encourage here,” Jusino says. “That’s what’s necessary to move on to the real world.” They’re gutting the home on Sherman Avenue for NHS, which buys and rehabs homes in underserved neighborhoods, then affordably sells them to low-income families—New Haven non-profits working together.
Things are humming along. Jusino confirms they’re ahead of schedule, though two men called out of work that morning. “That’s ok, you know? They called and said they weren’t coming. We believe in degrees of less failure here, so if somebody’s robbing cars last week, and today he’s coming in late, I can work with that. There’s gonna be a sanction, but we don’t kick people to the curb for that. The good thing is they called, they didn’t just disappear.”
He’s fair, but also firm. He and Wilson insert themselves into their crew member’s lives, asking tough questions, hoping to prevent trouble before it starts. They’re on call 24 hours a day. If someone’s having trouble with a girlfriend, about to lose their apartment, hanging out in the wrong spot—somebody from Emerge shows up. “We get involved. We talk them through the decision they made or are about to make. There’s a myth social service agencies believe: that you can take somebody, spend two weeks with them, and you’re gonna change their life. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Now, crew members call before trouble happens, asking for advice, for support. And someone from Emerge always shows up.
Ernie Northrup, who has indeed successfully re-discovered his waist, came to Emerge with no experience. “Dan’s tough on us, you know, but we know what that’s for. And if I wasn’t here, I’d be back on the streets. Being here, it’s not just about work. They teach you about decision-making. Since I’ve been here, my whole way of thinking is different,” he says. Now, he’s back in school at Gateway, and looking forward to finding full time work post-Emerge as a MetroNorth operator, or something in construction. As for JoJo, she’s got no plans to leave. She moved up to full-time supervisor 16 months ago. “Until Emerge runs outta business, Johanna will stick around,” she smiles from under that yellow hat.
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Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.