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It’s a cardinal rule of politics: If you’re in office, and you do something for someone, make sure to let the whole world know. It’s why governors plaster their names on highway-construction signs and why senators add their names to major legislation. It also explains light-blue T-shirts that, last summer, were more pervasive than Nats jerseys on D.C.’s streets: “Mayor’s Conservation Corps,” they read.
The message: The District’s chief executive—that would be Mayor Adrian M. Fenty—was the man responsible for taking thousands of otherwise bored kids and giving them something to do. Passersby who saw Conservation Corps kids clearing up trash would know that the mayor was beautifying the city. And parents of teenagers would know that the beautification also came with a paycheck, accessible via ATM cards distributed to the young employees.
Unfortunately, another demographic got that message, too: muggers.
Payday robberies were a prevalent concern in government e-mails obtained by Washington City Paper. The e-mail exchanges reached the highest levels of the Metropolitan Police Department and the District Department of the Environment, which despite the mayor-centric T-shirts, actually oversees the Conservation Corps.
In mid-August, one DDOE worker sent an e-mail to then-Director George Hawkins reporting the latest on the robbery problem: “We had a young man jumped and beaten at Backus [Middle School] a few minutes ago and two beaten at Riggs LaSalle [Community Center] 20 minutes. All were targeted because it is payday and they are wearing their blue shirts.”
The DDOE worker reported that they had offered to relax the T-shirt rule after the incident. But that offer was based on the assumption that teenage employees would happen to be carrying around spare T-shirts—an assumption that didn’t pan out. “In both cases MPD responded,” the worker states in the e-mail. “We ask youth to remove their shirts when leaving the site but most do not have an extra shirt.”
The August robberies followed a July 30 incident in which several Conservation Corps kids were mugged at gunpoint during their lunch hour at the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center in Northeast. The kids had been paid the previous day. According to an e-mail by a DDOE worker: “Money stolen and they took one boy’s shoes. Police have been called but have not yet responded on the ground at the site (a helicopter has flown over)…Recommended that we communicate to staff and kids to remind them not carry cash after pay days.”
The day before, July 29, produced two more violent attacks at Merritt Middle School, located at 5002 Hayes St. NE. According to a DDOE workers’ e-mail to Hawkins: A youth “was robbed during lunch time. He was choked by some young men and walked back from McDonalds; and taken to an alley. They took his [paycard], which he called and cancelled.” Another kid had been allegedly threatened, telling his supervisor that “guys from the neighborhood were planning to jump him when he left work.”
The DDOE worker went on to report in her e-mail “that two young men in masks were waiting in the back of Merritt school for MCC members. One [Summer Youth Employment Program] participant was chased by two young men from the neighborhood.”
MPD Assistant Chief Diane Groomes can recall five robberies involving summer job program youth—not including the victims who refused to cooperate with law enforcement or who were merely threatened. “It is an issue,” Groomes says.
Hawkins, who now runs D.C. Water, thinks the number of robberies could have been twice that. Indeed, violence was a constant subject among e-mail traffic between SYEP personnel, Groomes and other District officials. “It became one of my highest priorities,” Hawkins explains. “We wanted to be as assertive and proactive as we could to resolve these issues. I used to ask every day about it…It was very high on my radar, one of the highest things for the program.”
Most Americans may not think of fresh-faced teens when they think of government patronage work. But ever since then-Mayor Marion Barry turned the D.C. government onto the seasonal-hiring business three decades ago, the summer jobs program has become every District mayor’s favorite patronage tool.
The legacy helps explain why Barry continues to win re-election from the city’s poorest ward. Take away all the happy talk about cleaning the environment or giving kids a sense of direction, its basic economic logic still holds up. At a recent D.C. Council hearing, Department of Employment Services Director Joseph Walsh Jr. summed up the SYEP’s virtues thusly: “It helps D.C. right now. It means summer youth workers can provide essential financial support for themselves and their families at a time when so many are struggling to make ends meet.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the jobs-for-kids effort was taken up with gusto by Fenty, who’s facing his own re-election contest this fall. Fenty expanded the program from 12,000-plus young workers in 2007 to 19,000 in 2008. Last year, some 21,000 District kids collected a city paycheck for picking up trash, attending summer school, and manning lifeguard chairs at rec center pools. The majority of these kids may not be eligible to vote in the September primary, but their parents are.
In return for the $1,100 a young worker may bring home in exchange for less than two months worth of work, Fenty gets a summer-long public relations campaign, with the 5,500 T-shirted staffers of his Conservation Corps serving as the program’s most visible beneficiaries.
“Part of Politics 101 is also dealing with both marketing and branding yourself,” says At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown, whose committee has oversight over the jobs program. The mayor’s administration “is worrying too much about the branding and marketing, and not enough time on focusing on making sure our young people have a substantive summer experience.”
Unfortunately for Fenty, the program’s publicity hasn’t always been as bright as those blue T-shirts.
Beyond the muggings, there have been repeated examples of mismanagement. And there have also been stories pointing back to the basic question facing any program that guarantees employment to one and all: Just what is everyone supposed to be doing?
In 2008, the program went $34 million over budget. Last year, the problems with violence hit before the kids even made it to their first day on the job. In mid-June, two young men got into a heated argument apparently after leaving the SYEP orientation at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. One of the men opened fire on the other at the Columbia Heights Metrorail station, hitting his intended target and a bystander. Both survived their wounds. But the incident sparked public outrage and headlines.
After the Columbia Heights shooting, getting comment from District officials about the subsequent violent incidents involved tortuous back-and-forth negotiations, and only vague back-of-the-envelope statistics (“The Best Summer Job Ever,” 8/21/2009).
But even as officials stiff-armed the media, assaults, robberies, and a second shooting became grist for multiple e-mail chains within the Wilson Building and police headquarters, according to internal communications. The Metropolitan Police Department immediately started getting requests to beef up their patrols at certain SYEP sites.
On June 24, Hawkins e-mailed Carrie Kohns, the mayor’s chief of staff, and DOES Director Walsh under the subject line “safety at MCC sites”: “I have been in regular communication with Chief Groomes since yesterday afternoon—and we had presence at the five sites we identified yesterday…I will talk with her about a regular rotation of visiting a few sites each day, just for a check in…Apparently, MPD has received a huge increase in requests for presences at a wide range of SYP sites. Sign of the times, I guess.”
If Hawkins needed any more signs, July 8 would have been his awakening. On that day, the e-mail traffic furiously documented the programs’ chaos:
• At 10:44 a.m., an employee from a nonprofit based at Merritt wrote Fenty and another city official directly that the MCC’s staff had to break up fights, that police had to be called twice because of violence, and that Merritt had been heedlessly converted into a maggot-infested trash transfer station: “These children have been ‘dumped’ in a hot gym, no bottled water, no chairs…they sit on the floor, play basketball and hang out around the periphery of the school.” The citizen went on to report that trash had been slowly rotting away in the school’s gym.
“We have maggots in what was at one time, ‘the weight room.’ An institution of education is being turned into a ‘junk yard!’” the concerned woman wrote. “The children have been ‘dumped’ and now the trash from the community is being ‘dumped.’…IMAGINE YOUR CHILDREN…sitting on the floor of a gym most of the day, playing basketball in the same gym…then dumping, and storing trash in the very gym they are sitting in…IMAGINE…This is unacceptable.”
In a redacted follow-up message to Hawkins, a DDOE staffer confirmed the trash and security issues and wrote: “Consider this an SOS!!!…Please whoever can do something about all of this PLEASE phone me on my cell. We need help and ACTION NOW!”
• At 1:59 p.m., D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel reported that two summer jobs workers were shot along the 4300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Both men were rushed to an area hospital in stable condition.
• At 5:33 p.m., according to a police e-mail, a Department of Public Works summer worker got into a fight with a woman who was walking her child into a daycare center. The DPW worker told her mother that “she might get jumped.” That worker’s mother “comes up to the school and confronts some neighborhood girls outside the school and they start fighting. The mother maced some of the girls.” Three girls were arrested.
Councilmember Brown says he’s aware of the crime issue. “We have heard all those different horror stories,” he says. “Last year was a disaster and ‘08 was the largest disaster. That was a nightmare. That was when the problems magnified.”
Brown, for his part, blames the guy whose title adorns the T-Shirts: Fenty. He says that by moving so fast to boost enrollment, the mayor tolerated too many instances of poorly planned job sites overrun with too many kids sitting around. The councilmember has a term for it. He calls it “kid dumping.”
Hawkins, who compares the program to setting up a small school system, says some problems were probably inevitable. “With a program of that size, you are going to have mishaps,” he says. “Somebody was going to get large numbers of kids because of the size of the whole program…We were the ones that were going to have issues. What we had to learn and adapt on was how do you respond and prepare for them.”
Or, as Walsh conceded to Brown at the recent hearing: “This is a program of a billion details. It’s constant details…Any other HR program would explode.”
The election-year edition of SYEP—21,285 job assignments so far—got underway on Monday. Initial reports suggest that officials still have a lot of learning and adapting to do. On the first morning of work, between 800 and 1,000 kids were turned away from job sites. The site managers at RFK Stadium had to confiscate knives from several kids. There were also reports that some kids had stolen property—including iPhones—from their adult co-workers.
At least one significant detail has changed, though. The Mayor’s Conservation Corps will have roughly 2,300 workers; last year, it had more than twice as many youths and represented nearaly a quarter of SYEP enrollment. And police brass, Groomes says, have actively planned for any troubles, holding meetings with District agencies. “We know the sites and we know where the volatile ones would be, “ Groomes says. “They would get extra attention from us…It’s always a work in progress when you have 21,000 kids.” To underscore that point, teens in the program will be warned not to carry SYEP debit cards on paydays.
But there’s one thing that will remain constant: The Mayor’s Conservation Corps will keep on wearing uniforms. Sharon Cooke, DDOE’s spokeswoman, explains that the new uniform will consist of a white shirt and yellow work vest. It’s not a question of politics, Cooke says via e-mail. It’s a matter of discipline: “Just as in a school environment, the uniform prevents a host of problems among youth…This is a job, so a uniform is appropriate and allows members of the public to identify our program staff.”
They will, however, be allowed to change into their regular clothes on paydays.