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Former inmate finds hope and work cleaning Baltimore streets

Sunday, May 23, 2010; G06

Age: 27

Background: Harris was raised in a middle-income home with parents who expected her to do well. Yet her work experience consists mostly of selling drugs. Harris has a 3-year-old son, Stephon.

Paroled: Harris was released April 9 from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, where she was serving an eight-year sentence on two counts of possession of heroin. She previously had done time for armed robbery, drug possession and the distribution of heroin and crack cocaine.

The plan: Harris had placed her hopes on landing a job cleaning the streets of downtown Baltimore. It's a job some people would think beneath them. But for Harris it was an opportunity.

On May 3, she was hired as a "clean sweep ambassador" for the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which provides services in a 106-block area. Commercial property owners in the downtown district fund the clean sweep teams and other ventures.

"In our experience, the benefits of hiring an ex-offender outweighs the downside that the hire might not work out," said Michael Evitts, communications director for the partnership. "Stephanie is a good example. She is an extremely motivated employee focused on doing a good job. She gets along well with her co-workers and supervisors. And, after only three weeks, she is volunteering to take on new assignments and additional responsibility. What business wouldn't want an employee with these characteristics?"

Harris's first paycheck was $275 for three days of work. She immediately put $100 of that into a savings account. Right now she's living with her mother, so she doesn't have the financial pressure of paying rent or other expenses. She wants to help more with the bills. Once she's getting a regular paycheck, she'll begin with perhaps paying the cable or telephone bill.

Harris wants to get her own place, but not before she's built up a good emergency fund. I also remind her of keeping money in a "life happens fund" for expenses that come up unexpectedly.

"I have a lot of goals," she says, "but I'm not going to try and do everything in one day."

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