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HELP WANTED Getting to Work

A Hand Up In a D.C. System Full of Letdowns

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Michael Sims's knees ached from hours of standing at an industrial stove, making hundreds of servings of a watery stew. So he ducked down a hallway, sat down and puffed his Newport cigarette. He was about done when a burly older man with a white crew cut and a red face charged toward him.

"You know you're not supposed to smoke back here," growled Ron Swanson, who heads job training at D.C. Central Kitchen. "Why aren't you at your station?"

Sims, a 46-year-old man whose past includes alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, and occasional crime, was there to learn how to work in a commercial kitchen. Swanson knew no restaurant would let an employee take an unauthorized break, so he sent Sims home for the day to learn the lesson.

Sims walked out, bitter that Swanson was hounding him. After a lifetime of mistakes, he was finally doing things right -- showing up every morning, working hard, not drinking or doing drugs. What was the point if he was still going to get yelled at? He sat down at a restaurant and brooded.

For three hours, Sims, who had quit college, the Army and nearly every job he ever had, picked at a plate of shrimp fried rice. Then he walked back to the kitchen and promised not to break the rules again.

Sims would face other setbacks in the months ahead, including time in prison and an ongoing fight with alcoholism. A 12-week program ended up taking nine months. But one day last October, he joined members of the D.C. Central Kitchen's 61st culinary job training class as they danced their way into their graduation ceremonies and new lives as cooks.

Sims is a relatively rare success story in the District's elaborate and expensive efforts to get unemployed residents to work. The government and private organizations spend millions of dollars on hundreds of job training programs that have little oversight or coordination. Those programs fail to get many District residents into jobs, according to a year-long examination by The Washington Post. City Administrator Robert C. Bobb grades the city's job training efforts with a "D at best."

Those failures help explain why the District remains a pocket of joblessness in a booming regional economy, with an unemployment rate more than double that of surrounding suburbs. Fixing that is anything but easy. Programs trying to help the hard-core unemployed cannot merely teach a skill; they also must address the broader problems that keep the city's jobless out of the workplace.

"Every person here is dependent in one way or another," Swanson said. "For some, it's drugs and alcohol; for others, it's a dysfunctional family situation, whatever. To help them become independent, we can't just teach them how to do a job. We have to help them overcome whatever got them to this point."

'I Quit Just About Everything'

When Sims was a baby, his mother gave him away to a family of sharecroppers in North Carolina. They raised him without ever legally adopting him. Sims did well in school and went to college, hoping to emerge from the deep poverty he knew as a child.

Then he discovered beer.

He would drink one, and before he knew it, he had consumed a dozen or made his way to Bacardi rum. It helped overcome the shyness of an insecure country boy but also brought out an ugly bitterness over the challenges he had faced in life. Sims got into bar fights and grappled with depression. He left college and joined the Army, and, a year later, left that too.

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