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Freddie Gray, unrest brought federal money to Baltimore

Antione Oglesby inspects a car at Vehicles for Change's service center.
Rachel Baye
Antione Oglesby inspects a car at Vehicles for Change's service center.
Antione Oglesby inspects a car at Vehicles for Change's service center.
Credit Rachel Baye
Antione Oglesby inspects a car at Vehicles for Change's service center.

Mechanics were already busy at work at the Full Circle Service Center inHalethorpewhen 30-year-old Brandon Carroll walked in. He said he was late because he had to meet with his parole officer.

"I was incarcerated for about six years,” he said. “I was hanging around the wrong people and basically was a product of my environment. I got caught with a gun, and that set me down for a little while.”

While in prison, Carroll said, he learned about this program, run by the nonprofit Vehicles for Change. He’s been here nearly six months getting on-the-job training as an auto mechanic. He plans to get his certification in brake repair within the next week. Then Vehicles for Change will place him in a job.

"I have two children and I also have one on the way,” he said. “So I'm trying to prepare things for them, make life better for them, and just give them a better opportunity than I had.”

Vehicles for Change is one of more than a dozen area nonprofits that received part of a five million dollar grant the U.S. Department of Labor gave Baltimore last June.

The grant was one part of a larger coordinated federal response to the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody. The unrest was a wake-up call for state and federal policymakers. In the months since, Baltimore has seen an infusion of more than $65 million in new federal grants and a flurry of state legislation aimed at revitalization.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, whose district includes part of Baltimore, said the White House has pushed federal agencies to work more collaboratively to address the needs of cities since President Obama took office.

“The opportunity to showcase that kind of collaboration presented itself, obviously, last year in Baltimore after we had the unrest in the wake of the Freddie Gray death,” he said.

The Department of Justice stepped in to work with the city police department on community policing strategies.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the city a nearly $4-million grant to address lead paint.

The Department of Transportation announced a $10-million grant for the Port of Baltimore.

Sarbanes is working with the Department of Energy to bring solar panels to low-income communities in the city, and to train local residents to install them.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez focused on jobs, which he said was a root cause of the unrest.

"To simply and exclusively focus on improving the quality of policing in Baltimore would not get at the totality of the need,” he said. “We needed to build and we continue to need to build a new normal in Baltimore.”

In particular, Perez focused on job opportunities for people between the ages of 16 and 29.

His agency’s $5 million went through the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to the city’s Office of Employment Development, which funds One Baltimore for Jobs, the umbrella program working with Vehicles for Change and other area nonprofits to provide job training and a pathway to employment.

“A job- training organization, usually in the most traditional sense, they kind of figure out the best way they can,” said Danielle Torain, the One Baltimore for Jobs program director. She said a job seeker “may or may not come with a number of different issues or a number of different reasons why it's difficult for them to connect to work, and so each of those organizations usually does the best they can to connect them to other support service providers.”

For example, mental health issues, child-care needs or a criminal history could seem insurmountable for a job seeker.

Those behind One Baltimore for Jobs aim to test out a new approach to job training. The program boasts a network that links workforce training programs with organizations that provide adult education, legal services and mental health supports.

“You know remember like this goes back to the uprising, so we're talking about some of the hardest to serve job seeker populations in the city,” Torain said.

Torain said the goal for this particular grant is to place 700 Baltimore residents into jobs. As of February, the most recent program-wide data available, nearly 200 people had begun job training, and 17 had completed it.

But if it’s successful, Torain’s hope is that the program will establish a new normal.

While federal grants were making their way through the city, state legislators were taking their own stab at solving Baltimore’s problems.

One bill paid for public libraries in the city to stay open later. Another paid for extended school days and summer programs. There was money for tearing down vacant houses, and more money for redeveloping blighted neighborhoods.

And there was the police reform bill that aimed to improve relationships between police and communities.

The General Assembly’s 90-day session ended earlier this month, and most of these measures take effect July 1.

But many weren’t new ideas. Some have come before state lawmakers previously and failed.

“The reason why they were introduced in previous years is because they were issues then, and they are issues now,” said state Del. Keith Haynes, a Democrat who represents part of West Baltimore.

Haynes said last year’s unrest “created an opportunity for us to really bring our colleagues on board in Annapolis to understand what we're going through here in Baltimore and what the needs are and what the resources are that we’re looking for to help address some of these issues.”

House Speaker Michael Busch, who represents Anne Arundel County, said new developments, such as in the Inner Harbor and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s plans for Port Covington, may have misled some state lawmakers.

“In my estimation, Baltimore has experienced a renaissance up until the Freddie Gray incident, and I think many people have looked past the fact that there’s still a lot of poverty in Baltimore City,” Busch said.

But not all attention is good attention.

“The media coverage last spring really focused on what was happening outside and these incidents of looting, but when that happens you tend to miss all of the kids who are inside,” said Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “The most threatening aspects of inner city life are the ones that get the focus.”

For her new book, which came out last week, DeLuca and her co-researchers followed youth who were born into low-income families in Baltimore and grew up in poverty.

“The young people in Baltimore — they're hungry for opportunity,” she said. “I think what we learned from 10 years of fieldwork is that the last thing kids want to do is be on the corner.”

Dayvon Love, research and public policy director of the activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said the key to the reform is that it should come from the communities it aims to help. He said the new government efforts should invest directly in the communities that need help, rather than create dependency on nonprofit organizations that come in from outside those communities.

“The fundamental problem that we have in Baltimore is that there are people that are not from and of our communities making decisions about the institutions that govern our lives,” he said.

Copyright 2016 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR covering Maryland state politics and related topics.