Ex-Offenders Strive For Better


William Harper (second from left), vice president of Meyer’s Corporation, poses with ex-offenders he hired, along with CHA Altgeld Gardens Local Advisory Council President Bernadette Williams (third from left), Altgeld Gardens tenant Cheryl Johnson (fourth from right), president of People for Community Recovery, and CHA Senior Central Local Advisory President Martha Marshall (third from right), one of the first CHA tenants who established her own business, after the CHA Board of Commissioners meeting on October 18, 2011. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte

There is a decades old myth that Black men just don’t want to work. But William Harper, a tenant of the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on the far South Side of the city, has many examples that dispel that myth.
Harper is founder and vice president of Meyer’s Corporation, which provides general contracting services such as dry walling, painting, sub-frame, roofing, landscaping and snow removal.

Harper has been in business since January 2008 in the Altgeld public housing community, he told Residents’ Journal after the Oct. 18 CHA Board of Commissioners meeting at the Vivian Gordon Senior Apartments, 4227 S. Oakenwald St. Within that last year alone, Harper said he has hired over 59 African American men ex-offenders but added that he is having a difficult time in getting paid by the CHA’s private Management Company HJ Russell for some completed work, and had to lay off some of his employees.

“I was unable to keep all employed because of the lack of work I am receiving,” he said.

Harper has a contract with the CHA to perform work on property which is managed by HJ Russell, and expressed his “extreme dissatisfaction in the payment process” to CHA officials. He said it was his understanding that all vendors should be paid within 30 days or no later than 60 days, and added that he has been awaiting payment “for emergency services provided in good faith…since July 2011.” Harper also complained that officials at HJ Russell were “unprofessional” when he contacted them about the payments he said were overdue.

CHA Board Chair James Reynolds said he would check out Harper’s claims, but also thanked Harper for hiring ex-offenders. Reynolds said Harper is doing work that accords with CHA’s mission. “That’s really the type of thing that this team is really trying to promote, and that’s the type of thing that we want to do more of and that’s Resident Owned Businesses, and grow those,” Reynolds said.

CHA Chair CHA Board Chair James Reynold giving Harper accolades for hiring ex-offenders, during the CHA Board of Commissioners meeting on October 18, 2011. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte

Tales of Triumph
During the CHA Board meeting, several ex-offenders currently employed by Harper shared personal tales of how their jobs have helped them turn their lives around and encouraged the board members to provide Harper’s business with more contracts so they could be good role models for the community.

Jessie Figures, a formerly incarcerated man living in the Altgeld Gardens public housing community, told CHA board members “it took brothers” like Harper to give him a chance when he went for jobs and just got “shut down.” He added that the CHA’s support of the tenants’ small businesses helps ex-offenders like him continue to be positive role models for young people who might be traveling down the same road he did.

“If youth don’t have leadership, they’ll become lost followers,” Figures said. “Because the kids have no hope and they don’t have anybody to depend on. But when they see brothers like me who they used to look up to doing negative things now doing positive, then that gives them something to thrive off of.
“So reward the people that are doing instead of taking from them, because without no hope, there is no future,” he declared with outstretched arms.

Figures, known to many by his rap name as “Wild Wild the General,” told RJ after the CHA Board meeting that he was involved in crime for years, but now he is about “positive things.” He said he takes his role as an example to young people very seriously: “We did so much negative, destroying; now it’s time to build. Because we have kids, we have families out there still going through the shootings and going to the drugs and the things that plague our community. So we have to do something to uplift, and empower and more than anything, just inspire the youth to do something different. Don’t give up on us just yet,” he said.

Cornelius Tate, another ex-offender hired by Harper, thanked him and the CHA. “I’m a man and I have a background and I couldn’t find a job and he gave me an opportunity to work,” he said.
Tommy Davidson told the CHA Commissioners that employment by Harper gave him the opportunity to “handle” his life and “support” his family.
CHA Board Chair Reynolds asked Davidson what specific work he does, and he replied, “Whatever comes up. Whatever he has for me to do I do.”

Melvin Thomas, a landscaper with Harper’s company, said, “I wish he could have an opportunity to have a better chance to get more contracts where I can keep working.”

A cousin of Harper’s who he employed also spoke and told the CHA Commissioners that if it wasn’t for Harper hiring him, he would still be committing crimes or in jail.

“Without him, I would be out on the street or incarcerated. I just hope and wish that we get more opportunities to work with CHA,” he said.

Another employee of Harper said he has over seven certificates from various courses, but couldn’t get hired elsewhere because of his record. “I made all of the changes and they still wouldn’t give me an opportunity,” this man said.

Tenant Leaders
Harper has only received one contract from the CHA since his small business was formed, and Francine Washington, the Local Advisory Council president for public housing tenants in the Washington Park area, told the commissioners that his and other resident-owned businesses deserve the same support as developers and other private businesses who receive multiple contracts from CHA.

“I know these young boys when I had to almost bust some of their faces because they were really out there doing their own thing,” Washington said. “They have turned their life around. They deserve a chance. They deserve more than one contract. They are positive role models. I think they need more than a slap in the face just to appease them,” she said.

Martha Marshall, the Local Advisory Council president for senior tenants living in central areas and one of the first public housing residents who established her own business, told the board members that is was important for them to find a way to help out young men and women who wanted to work and find a job.

“I am so encouraged and blessed to see all of these young men here today,” Marshall said. “And so if nothing else today, we see that men want to work. And women want to work. So it is important for us to get together and find some work for people that want to work.”

Marshall, who is recovering from problems with her vision, added that she was really thankful that she was one of the original entrepreneurs at CHA and that she was getting back into the thick of things in order to help tenants in need of a job.

“It is up to us to help find them jobs,” Marshall said. “And I just believe that if CHA used a more preferential authority that more of our people could work.…I just think it is so important that everybody that wants a chance has a chance.”

Marshall encouraged the audience to clap for the employed ex-offenders to help “put to silence that myth that Black men don’t want to work.”

(Editor’s Note: Francine Washington is a board member of We The People Media)

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