Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
On a gloomy day in April, Darryl Kornegay pulls up to the Carrollsburg Dwellings on L Street SE. A stone’s throw from fashionable parts of Capitol Hill, the squat buildings constitute an entire block of public housing slated to be demolished. Kornegay locates the apartment he’s looking for and bangs on the door. It’s frigid outside, and the door opens with a gust of warm air, revealing a woman wearing a head scarf, men’s boxers, and a Tweety Bird tank top with a plunging neckline. Her breasts are practically spilling out.
Visibly abashed in the face of so much flesh, Kornegay introduces himself and asks the woman, 31-year-old India McShay, to come to the Pilgrim AME Church, a tiny black church in the Rosedale neighborhood off Benning Road NE.
Kornegay is not a proselytizer, though. His purpose in this case is a secular one: McShay must make an appearance at Pilgrim’s Job Connection, a provider of welfare-to-work training that contracts with the D.C. government, which isn’t going to wait until the afterlife to pass judgment on her. If she doesn’t drop by, the city will drop her from its welfare rolls.
“I’ve been there before, but I don’t like that dressing up and stuff,” McShay retorts after hearing Kornegay’s spiel. “I like to be as comfortable as I can. I’m not for all that dressing up.”
Pilgrim makes all the participants dress respectably for the work program. Job opportunities sometimes arise at a moment’s notice, and Program Director Chester Ray will pull people right out of a workshop to send them to an interview.
Kornegay nods understandingly but insists that McShay really needs to come in or she will be at risk of losing her benefits. Besides, he argues, Pilgrim can help her get into school if she’d like to consider a career change. He pitches the $750 bonus for getting a job, the free clothing and uniform allowances, the child-care assistance that is all provided at the church if she’ll come in to the program.
“Can I go somewhere closer? I’m trying to get her back into day care, and I don’t want to be traveling all over,” McShay says, pointing to her young daughter.
“Well, you really need to come on Monday,” Kornegay replies, explaining that Pilgrim isn’t too hard to find, and that once she’s in the program she can get tokens for the bus. She finally agrees that maybe she could make it. He reminds her to be there at 9 a.m. sharp.
“And cover up,” he says with exasperation as he waves his hands up and down his chest, laughing. She laughs, too. “Dress comfortable, but cover up.”
Kornegay’s cheerful departure marks an evolution for the interaction between government and people who receive welfare benefits. Many of the folks whom Kornegay seeks out remember stories about social workers of old snooping around looking for men in the house, unreported assets, or any other reason to cancel a benefit check. Kornegay, though, is a new type of outreach worker, whose full-time job is not to bust welfare recipients but to save their benefits.
When Congress passed sweeping new welfare-reform legislation in 1996, it fanned a debate on how longtime welfare recipients would ever find jobs. D.C., with its large population of low-skilled workers and high rates of illiteracy and drug abuse, figured to be particularly hard-hit by the work requirements under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Over the past seven years, though, Pilgrim officials have discovered that finding jobs for clients is the easy part of welfare reform. Finding clients is the hard part. “We know that jobs are out there. In November 2001, we placed 52 people in jobs. That was after 9/11,” Ray says.
According to Ray, Pilgrim officials realized early on that for every 100 letters the D.C. Department of Human Services mailed out telling welfare recipients—almost all of whom are women—to report to its job program, only about 40 would ever come in. Only about half of those would show up for the second day of the program. So the church elders drew on the idea of applying old-fashioned missionary work to welfare reform. That shoe-leather outreach has helped give Pilgrim the highest job-placement rate of any of the city’s welfare-to-work contractors. In March 2003, Kornegay’s first month on the job, he brought in 131 clients to orientation—more than three times what the letters from the Department of Human Services produced. And most of those who participate in the program do find jobs.
Such intensive outreach efforts are rare elsewhere in the country. Many states have figured that it’s a lot cheaper to simply let people fall through the cracks and lose their benefits than to send someone like Kornegay out to persuade reluctant moms to get with the program. But the 41-year-old Kornegay and his colleagues at Pilgrim reflect D.C.’s historic—if rarely achieved—ideal of caring for its poorest residents. Pilgrim has been so successful using outreach workers that the city has given contracts to other groups to do nothing but go out, knock on doors, and reel women in. Today, the city has 10 welfare-to-work providers that conduct home visits and three separate community organizations whose sole mission is to look for clients. “Most states make some attempt to get the customer in. If they don’t make it, they’re gone—they’re dropped from the program. We keep after them. We do everything we can to help people,” says Jason Perkins-Cohen, chief of the Office of Performance Monitoring at D.C.’s Income Maintenance Administration.
The end result is that despite gloomy predictions that welfare reform would maroon the poor in D.C., the city has one of the nation’s best track records in putting welfare recipients to work. Last year, the city placed 2,300 people in jobs. It has received nine of out 10 possible federal bonuses awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, totaling $115 million. That’s more total bonuses than any other state, and more money than any other state except for California.
Dressed in his signature hip-length black leather jacket, black pants, and a turtleneck, Kornegay heads into the basement of Pilgrim. Today, another blustery April day, Myrtle Gallow, a former Army lieutenant and nutritionist, is giving one of her spirited twice-weekly orientation sessions for the program’s clients. Kornegay pokes his head inside just long enough to see how many of the metal folding chairs are occupied. This is the outreach worker’s proven method of assessing his effectiveness. In the course of visiting more than 50 homes the week before, he pinned down 18 “customers” who promised to attend today. Unfortunately, the crowd numbers only 10, but Kornegay isn’t surprised. Most of the clients he contacts never show up.
Once he takes the morning head count, Kornegay walks around the corner to the yellow stucco house that serves as the job program’s headquarters to hit the phones and call all the no-shows—or, as he says, “try to listen to all these people’s lies.”
The first woman he gets on the line says she couldn’t come in this morning. “What’s the problem?” he asks. She tells him that she needs to get child care before she can come in—a standard excuse among Pilgrim’s prospective clients. “The child-care lady was here all morning on Friday,” Kornegay says. He schedules the woman to come in on Wednesday for orientation. When she protests again that she has a small child, he uses another standard reply: “Just bring him to the church.” Despite his insistence and promises of a free lunch after the session, the woman doesn’t sound as if she intends to show up. “She’s on drugs,” he explains after hanging up. “She came here with a black eye, all beat up. Her boyfriend, he sells drugs or something.”
He dials another number. A child answers the phone. “Is your mother or grandmother there?…She’s sleeping? Wake her up, please,” he orders. The grandmother gets on the phone, and Kornegay lectures her, reminding her that she promised to make sure her daughter came to orientation this morning. The grandmother claims suddenly that there was a death in the family—another common excuse. Kornegay expresses condolences but doesn’t let up. “You have her here Wednesday, OK?” He’s been after the woman in question for a while. “After Wednesday, she’s done with me,” he says.
Kornegay makes several more calls, which all go something like this: “You home? You need a ride?”
“If they’re home, I’ll go get them,” he explains. This tactic usually puts them in a state of panic, since it takes away most of their excuses.
Kornegay says, “It’s my job to bother people. A lot of them don’t respond ’til you go out there.” Indeed, the phone is a poor substitute for a home visit, especially because so many welfare clients don’t have phones. A few weeks earlier, some of Kornegay’s colleagues at Pilgrim did a blitz of telemarketing to try to get their enrollment up. His office mate, caseworker Ultiminio Dixon, a former bill collector who’s a pro at working the phones, made 70 calls one morning, connecting with maybe 10 actual people, including boyfriends, mothers, children, and employees of a Howard Johnson’s and some more odd-sounding businesses. Only two or three turned out to be actual “customers.”
And the Pilgrim telemarketers aren’t selling an unattractive product. Simply coming to Pilgrim for the work program pays almost more than welfare does. Pilgrim participants who come to all the workshops and do résumés and job-search training get, in addition to a regular TANF check, a stipend of $200 a month to help cover their transportation and lunch costs. Upon getting a job, Pilgrim gives them $750, and there are subsequent bonuses for staying employed. Participants also get child-care vouchers. Gallow tells people in orientation, “If you had to pay for day care, it would cost $790 [a month] for two kids. That’s a lot.”
Like any job, tracking down welfare recipients requires the proper equipment—and in Kornegay’s case, that means a hoopdee. For a year, he drove around in a white 1987 Plymouth Caravelle, bought for $900 from the Prince George’s County government. “Best car I ever had,” he says. The Caravelle blended in so well with the automotive landscape in Northeast and Southeast that once, on his way to pick up a client, the police surrounded him on suspicions that he was buying drugs. Since the brakes on the Caravelle went out a couple of months ago, Kornegay has been driving his girlfriend’s Chevy Cavalier until he gets his car fixed.
After a few hours of working the phones, Kornegay usually takes the referral list from the Department of Human Services, prints out maps on Travel.com if he needs help finding the addresses, and heads out. Today is a rainy day, which is good for his work. (“I love rainy days, because you don’t have to walk through the gang traffic,” he explains.) But it’s a bad-address day from the get-go. The first house on the list, on Evarts Street NE, turns out to be boarded up, with tires out front and a broken wheelchair in the grass. “Nobody lives there,” Kornegay concludes after banging on the door.
Bad addresses are a chronic problem for Kornegay and welfare reformers in general. TANF recipients are a transient bunch. It used to be that people would come into the city’s welfare office, at 645 H St. NE, to pick up their checks, making it easier for the city to keep tabs on their whereabouts. But now, TANF benefits come via an ATM card, so recipients can move around without letting the city know their latest addresses.
Even when Kornegay has valid addresses, the architecture of gloom that characterizes many of the neighborhoods he frequents means that his forays are routinely fruitless. The low-income apartment buildings that house most of his clients are often so run-down that the buzzers don’t work—or there simply aren’t any, as is the case at the building he visits one afternoon on 9th Street SE in Anacostia. Half the building is boarded up, the plywood blackened by fire; other windows are broken out. The Plexiglas on the front door is cracked and battered. Nonetheless, the door does not open.
In an attempt to get in, Kornegay slogs through mud that once was a lawn and throws pennies at a sliding glass door of a second-floor apartment whose balcony is totally enclosed by iron security fencing. Deflated kids’ birthday balloons hang off the edge. “I found sometimes if you tap on somebody else’s window, they’ll usually let you in,” he explains. When he can’t find a living person in the building, Kornegay says, “Well, that means I’ve got to come back.”
Kornegay has devised other strategies for getting inside buildings such as this one, ranging from the “Yo Adrian” approach of standing on the lawn and hollering to sweet-talking a janitor or security guard. Even these methods aren’t foolproof, though, if a potential client doesn’t want to be found. Some of his clients have later told him that when he first came to their house, they watched him through the window and didn’t answer the door.
Occasionally, what looks like a bad address really isn’t. One day, Kornegay canvasses a hulking apartment building at 4660 Martin Luther King Ave. SW. When he finds the apartment he’s looking for, the door has no doorknob and is badly dented in—damage from a police battering ram. “Don’t nobody live here,” Kornegay says, shaking his head as he pushes on the door. It swings open to reveal a man in his boxer shorts talking on the phone, who is as startled at the encounter as Kornegay. Fortunately, the man is friendly; he promises to give his girlfriend the paperwork from Pilgrim about orientation. “My size may make people think twice about getting in a confrontation,” says Kornegay, a bulky 6-foot-2, 270-pound man who played Division II football as a defensive end and defensive tackle at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina.
Kornegay occasionally finds himself envying the very folks he’s trying to help. On this day, he’s visiting one of the new town houses on Wheeler Road SE, part of a federal Hope IV project that replaced half-century-old cinder-block public housing. Kornegay says the new public housing is nicer than his own one-bedroom condo in Hillcrest Heights, Md. His do-gooder job at Pilgrim doesn’t allow for a lot of luxuries, especially with two kids and an ex-wife to support.
He knocks on the door and is greeted by a young woman with a half-eaten burger in one hand. Several young kids lurk in the background, eyeing Kornegay. The woman limps, and after hearing Kornegay’s lecture about losing her benefits, she says she can’t work because she’s just had surgery on her leg and has to go to physical therapy three or four times a week. Kornegay is prepared for this kind of evasion: “I see you’re hurt, so just come in and fill out the paperwork so we can get you exempted.”
He’s not entirely sympathetic to her leg problem. His own leg is crosshatched with scars from knee-replacement surgery, the result of a football injury that gives him a stilted gait even now. People with genuine health problems can get exempted from the D.C. work requirements, but they have to fill out some forms and provide medical records. Kornegay tells the woman to come Monday and they’ll get everything taken care of. Of course, she says she can’t come on Monday, either. “I have to go to court,” she explains. So Kornegay offers to send a caseworker out to do the paperwork in her home, and the woman agrees. “You can’t take a lot of BS in this job,” Kornegay says.
Kornegay’s front-stoop exchanges with welfare recipients generally don’t qualify as heated clashes, but he’s always prepared for resistance. He has a master’s degree in international relations from American University, where he studied with Dudley Weeks, an expert in conflict resolution who helped negotiate the end of apartheid in South Africa. To defuse conflict, Kornegay explains, “You have to assimilate and show that you are not an outsider.”
Kornegay steels himself as he heads around the corner to the 1200 block of Valley Avenue SE, home to several Pilgrim clients and one of his least favorite places to visit. In the shadow of the sparkling new housing project off Wheeler Road, Valley Avenue is the kind of violent hot spot that makes Kornegay’s colleagues admire his nerve—and openly admit that they’d never do his job.
Ray says Kornegay is always trying to get him to go out for a ride-along so he will know what Kornegay’s job is like. But like most of his colleagues at Pilgrim, Ray has no interest in that kind of field trip. “I don’t want to go out there. If I went out there, I’d get us both killed,” Ray says, laughing. “I tell him, ‘You were born to do this.’ He has a knack for doing it. He’s obsessed.”
Indeed, the son of a D.C. cop, Kornegay grew up in the city and knows these neighborhoods well enough to steer clear of trouble. He’s been lucky so far, despite his regular passing through open-air drug markets, public-housing craps games, and SWAT-team stakeouts.
“Out here, you don’t let wild and crazy things happen to you, because you got to cut it off and worry about your personal safety. I’ve encountered people who’ve been abrasive, obstinate. I’ve been in a house where there were weapons under their shirts and questionable activity going on. Why go in there and go out and get yourself hurt?” he says.
To get to his destination today, he has to sit in a veritable jam of drug traffic as dealers flash hand signals to him indicating they have something to sell. (“They know my car look too bad to be the police,” he says with a hearty laugh.) Once he parks, he navigates through more dealers lined up along the fence of the apartment building he needs to visit. The police have made a big deal about sending out their new mounted patrols to this neighborhood, but there’s no sign of any horses—or cops—today. This little scrap of land is one of D.C.’s primary open-air marijuana markets. “I tell Mr. Ray he doesn’t pay me enough to do this,” Kornegay says as he eyeballs the dealers along the fence.
Even the little kids exude menace, circling on their bikes and heckling him. “These places can turn bad quick.” Indeed, over the next two months, three people will be murdered in this very spot.
Kornegay suspects that some of the people he goes looking for have been on the referral list for so long because even the mailman is scared off by the thugs who guard the doors of many of the city’s low-income apartment buildings. As a result, lots of the people in the worst neighborhoods don’t get the benefits of welfare reform, and they often suffer the most from its sanctions, because they are the paperwork screw-ups. Knocking on the door is often the only way to communicate with these folks.
Inside the building, he is greeted with a cloud of pot smoke, some of which appears to stem from the apartment he’s looking for. Kornegay jokes, “I’m getting a contact high.” At his knock, the client he’s looking for opens the door a crack. She’s barely a teenager, wearing leopard-print pajamas. When Kornegay tells her she needs to come to her job orientation on Tuesday, she mutters, “I’m in school.”
“Oh, are you in school? Great! You just need to come in and fill out some paperwork so we can get you exempted,” he says with enthusiasm that isn’t matched by the client. Her excuse is a valid one for the government, but it doesn’t quite wash with Kornegay, who tries to lure her to Pilgrim anyway. He doesn’t get too far with her, and on the way back to the car he suggests a reason: “She’s high,” he says, noting her glassy, bloodshot eyes.
On a particularly sunny scouting day, Kornegay tackles a list of his “hard-core” types. These are the people who’ve already been to Pilgrim once before or have cycled through several other of the city job programs and failed. Most of them have been on welfare for a very long time and either are already being sanctioned or are about to be sanctioned. These are often the people who are the least happy to see him. “Some days people are just having a bad day, and you just happen to be the one they vent on—like road rage. They’ve been to court, didn’t get the job they wanted. ‘I’m gonna use you as a whipping boy,’” Kornegay says.
One of the first stops is at Stoddert Terrace, on 37th Place SE, a collection of postwar brick apartment buildings of the sort that once were called “garden apartments” but now have degenerated into “projects.” The two-story buildings face out onto a walkway of dirt adorned with the occasional laundry line. Some kids’ toys are out front, and graffiti grace the scars in the brick where awnings and columns once sheltered the front doors. (The complex has since been spiffed up a bit.)
A woman is looking out a second-floor window when Kornegay walks up. He yells, “You didn’t come in!” The woman was scheduled to come to an orientation a few weeks back but never showed. She smiles wanly and says she’s coming down. After a long wait, the rotund woman answers the door in a red nightgown with a safety pin clipped over her belly button. A distinctly foul odor emanates from the apartment. She sounds groggy even though it’s already noon. Kornegay cajoles her: “You didn’t show up, and you’re getting me in trouble with DHS.”
The comment sets her off on a tirade about why she’s not coming to any program. “I’m not going to be here much longer. I’m getting out of D.C. I just can’t take it anymore!” she tells Kornegay. He nods but counters that she should come down to Pilgrim to “fill out some paperwork” to let the Department of Human Services know she’s moving. “Just come Tuesday.”
She’s still scowling and shaking her head, suggesting that she has no intention of coming. Nonetheless, Kornegay gives her directions, gets a phone number, and has her sign a visitation form so he has evidence that she’s been contacted in person. If she doesn’t show up Tuesday, she’ll get sanctioned again and lose another 25 percent of her benefits. Even then, Kornegay thinks, she probably won’t show up. “This lady today,” he ponders, “might only be getting $40 a month, and for some people, $40 a month just is not worth the trouble.”
Sanctions, he explains, aren’t really the big stick that members of Congress had in mind when they created the new work-focused program. That’s partly because welfare benefits haven’t gone up since the new law was passed in 1996. Right now, TANF pays a family $239 a month for one child, $298 if the mother is also eligible. A mom and two kids get $379 a month. Getting sanctioned a first time reduces the benefits by about $75 or $80 a month.
Despite his predictions for the lady in red, Kornegay says, “You never know who will turn out to be the success story. You can wear people down. It might take two months, but they’ll come sooner or later. Soon as you think, This person is going to do nothing, they do something.”
After leaving the lady in red, Kornegay heads over to Gainsville Street SE, a block of privately owned low-income housing. Kornegay hates these small, four-unit cinder-block apartments with narrow stairwells. There’s only one way out—often guarded by young men engaged in serious gambling, because the walls provide good bounce for dice rolls. “There’s not much traffic to interrupt you if someone robs you,” he explains. Unfortunately, lots of his clients live on this block. “This is the kind of building you can get hurt in.” But after going upstairs through the urine-scented hallways of the building, Kornegay knocks on the door of an apartment than turns out to be a cove of neat domesticity.
The woman he’s looking for answers the door. She’s thin and well-groomed, and perhaps the first person he’s seen all day who isn’t wearing pajamas. The apartment is neat, with a big TV in the living room tuned to Days of Our Lives. A small table is primly covered with a white cloth. A boy of about 5 wearing sweat bands on his wrists is eyeing Kornegay from the hallway. Kornegay goes into his routine and explains to the woman that she’s about to lose her benefits and that she needs to come down to Pilgrim for orientation, and they can help her get a job. The woman is fiercely opposed to the idea. She says she can’t come because she’s got her grandson to look after and school is out for Easter break for two weeks.
“You can bring him,” Kornegay says, launching the familiar back-and-forth about how Pilgrim provides child care, transportation, and so forth. It doesn’t work. She says she doesn’t need any help getting a job because she has always worked in security. Right now, she’s just taking a break. “I’m not from here,” she insists, saying she’s from Hartford, Conn. “I don’t know how to find anything in D.C. I just came down here to live with my daughter.”
He eventually seems to gives in and starts to leave, but then he turns back, telling her, “You come on Tuesday, OK? Just come in and do some paperwork. We’ll have some coloring books or something for you grandson.” He says there’ll be lunch—Popeyes chicken, which sometimes is more an incentive than anything else for people with kids. “Come at 9.” She shakes her head and slams the door behind him.
“That lady told me a lie, didn’t she? School’s not out for two weeks,” he says. Later, he observes that her claim to ignorance of D.C. was pretty specious, too. “She found her way to 645 H St. to apply for benefits, didn’t she?”
Walking back to his car, Kornegay reflects: “You know, sometimes I feel like, if you don’t want DHS in your business, don’t take their money. It’s like the Mob. If you borrow money from the Mob, they want to know where your grandmother lives. If you don’t want me in your house, in your business, don’t take the money.”
India McShay hasn’t forgotten the day last April when Kornegay knocked on her door. “It was a real shock,” she says. “I thought it was a bad thing.” She says she resisted the idea of going down to the church. “I didn’t know about all that dressing up,” she says. “Still don’t. That’s my main objection.”
But days later, McShay arrived bright and early at the church basement, modestly attired in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. She spent the morning getting the Pilgrim pep-talk/orientation, along with a lecture about the economics of work versus welfare, from Myrtle Gallow, who made a compelling case that Pilgrim could help her listeners if they’d just participate. “We can put people to work in 35 to 40 days,” Gallow told them. “We have no problem putting people to work. We have trouble getting people to come in.”
McShay did spend some time at the church writing a résumé and attending workshops on interviewing techniques but never finished the program. That’s because an actual job—a non-dress-up job—interrupted her job training.
The Carrollsburg Dwellings, where she lived, was slated to be demolished and rebuilt as part of a multi-million-dollar federal housing project, and all the residents had to be relocated elsewhere. The moving company charged with packing everyone off hired McShay to help out.
McShay also moved herself and her two children to far Northeast into a new apartment. She worked for the moving company for seven or eight months before getting a new job in construction, where she stayed until about three weeks ago, when she and all the employees were laid off because of a financial scandal at the company. McShay has been able to keep her welfare benefits, but says if she doesn’t find a new job soon, Kornegay won’t have to come out to find her. She’ll be going back to Pilgrim. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.