Cover Story

It takes TEEM work

More than legal hurdles make welfare-to-work difficult

Issue: "Welfare Reform on Trial," May 3, 1997

from Oklahoma City

Daryl Loukx's looks admittedly scare small children and social workers. It's Monday, and he arrives early at The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) in Oklahoma City as part of his work-release program at the city jail. For the last seven years, the taxpayers have supported Daryl-either with monthly Social Security/Disability Income checks or through room and board in prison.

But TEEM, led by Methodist minister Theo &quotDoc" Benson, says it can turn Daryl-and the other 15 out-of-work adults who are attending this week's Job Readiness Workshop-into productive citizens. With welfare reform a reality, Mr. Benson contends, it's now time to focus on how to move people from welfare to work. Mr. Benson says he knows how to help even the least employable to find jobs.

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Mr. Loukx, 40, is a shaggy, unkempt convict with dark eyes and a beard that covers the rest of his face. His uneven knuckles are tattooed with the words &quotlove" and &quotpeace," and a bottle of pills can be heard rattling in the pocket of the threadbare corduroy jacket he wears. The former addict hasn't cut his hair or beard since entering prison for car theft in 1993, and it's been even longer since he's been employed. For seven years now, he's received an SSDI check for his bipolar mental disorder. &quotIf they can make me employable, they're pretty good here," he says in his crisp Boston accent.

He's on a work-release program from the Oklahoma City Jail, where he's 10 days into a 45-day stint for parole violation. Up close, Mr. Loukx is not so bad. He smiles-not often, but occasionally-and he quotes the Bible. He talks easily about his newfound faith and his wife, who lives in Arkansas with her mother. &quotMy mother-in-law only lets me contact my wife once a week," he says. &quotShe doesn't trust me. I guess she has good reason not to."

Mr. Loukx knows that like mothers-in-law, few employers will look past the beard, the shaggy hair, the past drug addiction, the felony convictions, the history of mental problems. &quotWho would hire me?" he asks in a defeated tone at the first of the week. &quotI wouldn't."

What will it take to make Daryl Loukx into a working, tax-paying, positive citizen? Doc Benson says what Mr. Loukx needs is a new vision of himself. &quotWe have to change people's self-image," Doc says. &quotWhen we tried to help folks, we took away their sense of worth, their dignity, their self-respect. When we did that, we created the four related problems of hunger, homelesses, addiction, and violence."

Mr. Benson, 68, doesn't bother to qualify his statements. He doesn't have to. His program works, and there's no evidence like success. Of the more than 5,000 men and women who have gone through the program, more than 4,000 are currently employed.

A 10-year-old program, The Education and Employment Ministry grew out of Oklahoma's Skyline Urban Ministry. Doc Benson was appointed to Skyline in 1981, and there he saw a need for a way to bridge the gap between welfare and work. He eventually developed a three-part program that claims to spend less than $800 to move a person off welfare (or out of prison) and into the labor force. Mr. Benson often points out that it costs $18,000 to support one person for a year on welfare, and from $15,000 to $60,000 per person for a year in prison.

The first leg of the TEEM tripod is the Job Readiness Workshop, a five-day class that teaches job-getting skills. It includes a day-long career placement test, which measures each class member's abilities, interests, and qualifications, then suggests career fields. Everyone involved with TEEM-not only the unemployed who come for help, but also TEEM staff members and volunteers-goes through the workshop. It ends with a graduation ceremony. Afterwards, job-placement counselors work with graduates for up to two years as they seek employment.

The second part of TEEM's work is the Temporary Employment (TE) division. Some, after the week-long workshop, aren't ready to get and keep a job, Mr. Benson says. So he provides &quotbridge employment," a minimum-wage job with TEEM that can last up to 90 days. TEEM crews are out every day mowing lawns, demolishing buildings, doing light industrial work. Outside companies contract with TEEM, and Mr. Benson guarantees the work. &quotIf we don't do a good job, you don't pay," he tells firms. In Temporary Employment, workers are patiently taught &quotjob-keeping skills" such as promptness and honesty.

And third, TEEM requires that each person it helps attend some sort of continuing education at its facility. There are GED classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and computer literacy training. It all takes place in an old root beer bottling plant at the edge of downtown Oklahoma City. The former owner, with the advice to &quottear it down and start over," gave the building to Mr. Benson in 1987. Broken Thunderbird and Night Train bottles lined the floor; a fire had burned through part of the roof. But Mr. Benson took a liking to the building, and characteristically not wanting to declare anything or anyone irredeemable, he used the first Temporary Employment work crews to clean it up and renovate it. The building is now worth about $1 million.

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