It’s 4 p.m. at Blind Dog Cafe, and Will Avila, Charlie Curtis and Junior Andrade file in — three men in their 20s recently released from prison for committing violent crimes.
The customers are long gone, and lingering employees are packing up, leaving the three men on their own to clean every crevice of the trendy and purposefully dingy cafe near U Street on Florida Avenue NW.
“They come here and get the job done,” cafe manager Aaron Fennell said as Andrade, 25, cleaned a sink in the back room, using a headlight to ensure that it was spotless. “Can’t do nothing but love that.”
The men clean industrial kitchens after hours throughout the District as part of Clean Decisions — a company that Avila, 28, started last year to provide ex-offenders with jobs and skills in hopes of keeping them out of prison.
“Most employers don’t want to work with us because we are violent ex-offenders,” Avila said. “I made up my mind, and 100 percent what I want to do is help guys like me.”
Avila, whose family came here from El Salvador, grew up in the District’s Brightwood neighborhood. He landed behind bars for gang-related violence at age 15 and drifted in and out of prison over the next decade. Avila was among the two-thirds of prisoners nationwide who are rearrested within three years of release, according to the National Institute of Justice.
“I went into jail three times because there was a lack of resources and mentoring in the city,” he said.
Avila said he knows recidivism statistics all too well. He has relatives who have been in and out of prison, including one serving a life sentence. When he finished his last prison stint at the age of 26, he decided his life would be different.
He got a job as a dishwasher at a Tenleytown neighborhood Chipotle restaurant and quickly rose to service manager. On the side, he wrote poetry with Free Minds — an organization that connects formerly incarcerated teens with creative writing and literature.
It was at a poetry reading where Avila met Graham McLaughlin, a managing director for the District-based consulting firm Advisory Board Co., who provided Avila with seed money and helped him craft a business model. Clean Decisions now has two full-time employees and a part-time worker, and it hires up to 30 people for bigger jobs, including cleaning after Taste of DC.
“Will [Avila] created this, and it’s a business. No one is giving them anything,” McLaughlin said. “He really created a positive environment, where it’s not just about the helpers and those being helped. It’s a real brotherhood.”
McLaughlin and Avila live with two other men who are former convicts in a house that McLaughlin owns in Southeast Washington. They pay rent to McLaughlin and, when they move out, McLaughlin plans to return the money so the men have savings in their bank accounts and experience paying market-rate rent. Once a week, Clean Decisions employees have a pancake breakfast in the house, where they talk through challenges they are facing.
Together, they help one another by writing résumés and catching up on technology they fell behind on while serving their sentences.
“I was locked up when I was 16,” said Curtis, 25, a full-time employee who went to prison for six years for armed robbery and wants to start a car-detailing business. “I never had a job before, never knew how to do interviews.
“I think this company changes what people think of us. Most people fear the word ‘incarcerated’ and think it’s bad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person.”
The idea of Clean Decisions is that employees will work temporarily to gain experience and a notch on their résumés, then find jobs elsewhere so other former convicts can cycle through the program.
The company’s clients have included District Taco, Union Kitchen and One Eight Distilling Co. Avila has also started booking landscaping jobs for the group. They each work about 40 hours a week.
While Clean Decisions is a for-profit company, Avila said he’s planning to start a nonprofit arm of the business called Changing Perception, in which employees are provided such services as tutors so they can earn GEDs.
“This has helped me a lot. They gave me housing,” said Andrade, who was involved in a stabbing as a teenager. “When I started, I didn’t know anything about cleaning, and I’m still learning every day.”
While Avila works to expand the business and the other men prepare to find business opportunities of their own, they’re having fun along the way.
“This is Junior’s favorite kind of music,” Avila said as Spanish Reggaeton music played from an iPhone at Blind Dog Cafe as the men cleaned near the main counter. Andrade scrubbed the industrial toaster oven, Curtis wiped the counter and Avila cleaned the food containers.
The back of their shirts read: “Clean Decisions: Good for business. Good for the community.”