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Offbeat Baltimore is mired in violent crime. Could part of the solution be found in reclaimed wood?

05:11  14 june  2018
05:11  14 june  2018 Source:   usatoday.com

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The U.S. Forest Service thinks this wood can be used to help reduce crime and is launching a “matchmaking” effort to connect non-profits employing formerly incarcerated workers to deconstruct Baltimore - is - mired - in - violent - crime - Could - part - of - the - solution - be - found - in - reclaimed - wood /.

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BALTIMORE – A federal agency more commonly associated with its Smokey Bear mascot and tips on preventing forest fires thinks it may have part of the solution in big cities' fight on crime: urban wood.

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There's a treasure trove of wood in abandoned buildings. The U.S. Forest Service thinks this wood can be used to help reduce crime and is launching a “matchmaking” effort to connect non-profits employing formerly incarcerated workers to deconstruct buildings with private companies seeking lumber.

Agency officials say the partnerships could go a long way in reducing the scourge of violent crime , while decreasing the number of ex-offenders who return to prison: About 70% of Baltimore offenders find themselves back in jail within three years of being released. The wood project also fits the Forest

The U.S. Forest Service has quietly launched a “matchmaking” effort to connect non-profits employing formerly incarcerated workers who deconstruct abandoned buildings in big metropolises such as Baltimore with private companies looking for a dependable supply of reclaimed lumber.

Agency officials say the partnerships could go a long way  toward reducing the scourge of violent crime while decreasing the number of ex-offenders who return to prison: About 70% of Baltimore offenders find themselves back in jail within three years of being released. 

The wood project also fits the Forest Service mission because it helps keep good wood out of landfills as Maryland and Baltimore officials push forward with a program to demolish about 4,000 homes over the next four years, agency officials said.

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The U.S. Forest Service thinks this wood can be used to help reduce crime and is launching a “matchmaking” effort to connect non-profits employing formerly incarcerated workers to deconstruct buildings with private companies seeking lumber.

Forest Service fights violent crime in Baltimore with urban wood . BALTIMORE – A federal agency more commonly associated with its Smokey Bear mascot and tips on preventing forest fires thinks it may have part of the solution in big cities' fight on crime : urban wood .

About 14.5 million tons of wood in America's landfills every year come from urban areas, according to the most recent Forest Service estimates. That's more than the amount of timber harvested from national forests each year.

“It’s about air quality and water quality,” said Morgan Grove, a Baltimore-based research forester who is spearheading what the agency has dubbed the Urban Wood Project. “It’s also about reducing crime and helping people move forward. We’re trying to help people get back on their feet. At its core, it’s really still maintaining the mission of revitalizing that the Forest Service has had since the agency was started in early 1900s.”

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Abandoned buildings are hubs for crime

Few cities have been hit as hard as Baltimore by violent crime and the scourge of abandoned housing — big-city blight that becomes hubs for illicit drug use and prostitution and is frequently used by assailants to dump homicide victims.

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Forest Service fights violent crime in Baltimore with urban wood . BALTIMORE – A federal agency more commonly associated with its Smokey Bear mascot and tips on preventing forest fires thinks it may have part of the solution in big cities' fight on crime : urban wood .

But the Baltimore program operated by Humanim is unique for its focus on deconstruction and refurbishing reclaimed wood . 9-week-old Saint Bernard, Officer Donut, sworn in as police comfort dog. 5th. Baltimore is mired in violent crime .

Some of the nation’s cities with the highest homicide rates also have enormous stocks of abandoned buildings.

Baltimore (55.8 homicides per 100,000 residents) has roughly 16,000 abandoned structures. Cook County, which includes Chicago (24 homicides per 100,000), has an estimated 55,000 abandoned buildings. Detroit (39.7 homicides per 100,000) has about 70,000 abandoned buildings.

The  problem is also felt in smaller cities such as Gary, Ind., where serial killer Darren Vann  pleaded guilty last month to murdering seven women whose bodies he dumped in some of Gary's 8,000 abandoned structures.

Baltimore’s sea of boarded-up buildings provides an ugly reminder of what the city once was before being decimated by white flight, the loss of 100,000 industrial jobs in the latter half of the 20th century and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. The city, which boasted a population of nearly 950,000 people in 1950, now hovers around 615,000 residents.

Baltimore had the highest per capita homicide rate of any big U.S. city in 2017 as it tallied 343 murders. The city has recorded more than 110 homicides so far this year.

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Forest Service fights violent crime in Baltimore with urban wood . BALTIMORE – A federal agency more commonly associated with its Smokey Bear mascot and tips on preventing forest fires thinks it may have part of the solution in big cities' fight on crime : urban wood .

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the Conversation Guidelines and FAQs. Baltimore is mired in violent crime . But the Baltimore program operated by Humanim is unique for its focus on deconstruction and refurbishing reclaimed wood .

Old homes, new mission

In the agency’s first matchmaking effort, the Forest Service hooked up Humanim — a Maryland-based non-profit group that employs ex-offenders who deconstruct abandoned buildings as well as refurbish and sell wood and bricks from abandoned structures — with Room & Board, a Minneapolis-headquartered furniture retailer that touts its use of American lumber and local craftsmen.

This year, Room & Board began selling furniture made from Southern yellow pine and Douglas fir ripped out of century-old abandoned row homes in some of Baltimore’s more violence-plagued neighborhoods.

One of the company’s contract furniture makers, State College, Pa.-based Spectra Wood, already has purchased about 16,000 board feet of reclaimed Baltimore lumber —the equivalent of usable wood pulled from about 26 homes. Room & Board projects that its suppliers will buy 54,000 feet of lumber in 2018 and that it will grow its Baltimore furniture line by 30% to 40% in 2019.

Gene Wilson, Room & Board's director of merchandising and vendor management, says the company has been drawn by the quality and unique character of the wood — the dense Southern yellow pine Humanim is pulling out of Baltimore homes is difficult to find — and the social benefit the company can have by buying through a firm employing ex-convicts. The furniture retailer said it is not benefiting from any cost savings by using Baltimore lumber.

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Forest Service fights violent crime in Baltimore with urban wood . BALTIMORE – A federal agency more commonly associated with its Smokey Bear mascot and tips on preventing forest fires thinks it may have part of the solution in big cities' fight on crime : urban wood .

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“This is really dialed in and well set up,” said Wilson, who added that the company is looking for more opportunities to purchase reclaimed wood through groups that work with the formerly incarcerated. "The story of the wood is amazing. We need all kinds of work like this to go on in the country. It puts us in better position long-term, and it also allows us to have an impact on lives and neighborhoods.”

'Keep me out of trouble'

For some of the Humanim workers, such as Kobe Bland, the project has offered a chance at salvaging life.

Bland, 18, said he had been arrested at least 10 times as a juvenile on drug-related charges and was shot by a rival when has 15. Not long after he was released after his latest arrest, Bland learned that his girlfriend was pregnant and that he’d soon have a child to support.

His aunt came to Max Pollock, director of Humanim’s wood and brick processing division, known as Brick + Board, and told Pollock she was worried without a job she’d lose her nephew to prison or worse. Pollock agreed to give him a shot.

Four months later, Bland says he has  stopped dealing drugs and is slowly getting the hang of legitimate work.

“I’m hopeful this job will keep me out of trouble,” Bland said as he took a break from processing long sheets of pine. “It’s hard. All I know is the street, and every day I think about going back. But I know this is a way for me to be there for my family.”

Jeff Carroll, vice president for Humanim, said sustained employment — a difficult proposition for those coming out of prison — is the ticket to keeping former offenders from heading back to prison. Five Baltimore neighborhoods that historically have accounted for a disproportionate number of Maryland prisoners — about one in four of the state's incarcerated population — have an unemployment rate of 52% for all residents ages 16 to 64, according to a 2015 joint study by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative.

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The Humanim jobs, which pay $11.66 to $22 an hour and provide health care benefits, are ideally transitional work — with ex-offenders spending 18 months to two years with the non-profit — before moving on to better paying work in the trades.

In that time, Carroll said, the workers are able to work on trade certifications and demonstrate they have developed “stickiness” and dependability that can be used to help persuade future employers to look past their criminal records.

“If we get these guys past that year mark, they are not going to go back to prison,” said Carroll, who said Humanim has not had an instance of an employee from its deconstruction or wood and brick processing divisions return to prison in more than two years.  “I tell (prospective employers), 'I’m helping you find a guy who has come to work every day for the last year and a half or two years. I’m not going to give you a loser.'”

A new home, a new life

Damon Toogood, 39, an ex-offender who has moved up the ranks and is now a deconstruction team foreman, said the work helped him turn the corner from a dark past. 

In 1995 at age 16, he was charged as an adult with murder, robbery and weapons violations for his part in the killing of a 41-year-man in the city. Toogood and a teenage friend, Ronald Harris, accosted artist and antiques dealer Keith Huppert in the city's Bolton Hill area, a neighborhood filled with well-preserved row homes that was once home to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Woodrow Wilson.

When Huppert refused their demand for money, Harris shot him.

Prosecutors eventually dropped the murder charge against Toogood, but he did 6½ years for the robbery and weapons violation. Harris was released from prison recently after serving the bulk of his 25-year sentence, Toogood said.

Toogood did a second five-year stint in prison on drug-related charges. The best he could initially find after getting out of prison four years ago was a $7.75-an-hour job at McDonald’s until Carroll hired him at Humanim.

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He’s now earning enough to help his 20-year-old daughter with college and recently bought his first home with his girlfriend in a nearby suburb.

"The light didn't turn on in me until Jeff (Carroll) gave me a chance," Toogood said. "It gave me something to look forward to. I didn't have to worry about like I did on the streets that someone was coming to take it or whether I'm going to live to see the next day or whether I'm going to go to jail."

Toogood said he thinks about Huppert, the victim of the 1995 armed robbery, constantly. He said the 16-year-old who took part in what he called a "senseless crime" was a kid who thought the best he could be was a "tough guy, thug on the block."

"If I could take back what I did, I would," Toogood said. "This is something I'm going to deal with my whole life."

Partnerships cemented 

Around the country, other cities — including Chicago; Cleveland; Dayton, Ohio — have programs that pay former offenders or even jail inmates to demolish homes. But the Baltimore program operated by Humanim is unique for its focus on deconstruction and refurbishing reclaimed wood.

Forest Service officials say the Baltimore pilot has proved that the federal agency can play a unique role helping local non-profit agencies doing deconstruction work quickly scale up and build partnerships with national retailers that can provide a consistent stream of orders.

Since getting into the deconstruction business about five years ago, Humanim had sold refurbished wood and bricks to about 200 smaller buyers: small architecture firms, builders and DIYers.

Over the past four months, about 20% of lumber sales have gone to Room & Board contractors to build cabinets, shelving and ladders. Humanim  now has 41  employees, most of them ex-offenders, working in its deconstruction and wood processing divisions, and Carroll says they are getting ready to boost their hiring as deconstruction projects pick up in the warmer months.

Room & Board has named one line of $2,000 storage cabinets made of Southern yellow pine after McKean Avenue, part of West Baltimore that was hit by rioting in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a neck injury while in police custody.

When USA TODAY recently visited a block of McKean where Humanim workers over the past 18 months have deconstructed more than a dozen abandoned row homes, drug dealers operated brazenly on one corner — only scurrying away when a lookout shouted that a police squad car was driving their way.

Despite the drug dealing, the area has vastly improved as a result of the teardowns, Forest Service officials say.

On one side of the block, a row of abandoned homes has been replaced with a green space, paid for by the group Parks & People, that includes a swing set, chessboards and small stage for performances. On the other side of the block, where several decrepit row houses were leveled last month, neighbors are pressing the city to find a grocer to build on the space.

The Forest Service is now on the hunt for more non-profits and companies using  lumber in hopes of pairing them in similar fashion.  

“This is not meant to be a boutique operation,” Grove said. “What we’re trying to do is understand how do we build a wood economy that is addressing some of the fundamental economic problems that we face in cities. There are many cities like Baltimore that are facing a similar situation with abandoned housing and the structural problems that lead to recidivism — St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago. The list goes on and on.”

Follow USA TODAY's Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad

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