Every morning, John Wiseman goes into the Urbean Cafe hoping to be affirmed in his faith that former lawbreakers can be converted into productive, law-abiding citizens.
He has been counting the till six times a week for nearly a year and he’s encouraged so far. Since Broken Chains Ministry opened the cafe in the Metro RTA Robert K. Pfaff Transit Center on July 1, only two minor thefts have been discovered.
The cafe is dedicated to providing work experience to some of the least employable people in society, hiring mostly former drug users. Not all of them are convicts, but Wiseman says they all had some kind of problem before being hired by the prison ministry.
Drugs were Joy’s problem. She’s a 52-year-old employee who doesn’t want her last name used. Her job is to run the till and act as the supervisor after Wiseman goes home in the afternoon until the cafe closes at 8 p.m.
“They pay me $9.25 [per hour]. I think that’s very generous,” she said.
The goal is for Joy to get enough experience and a proven record of being trustworthy so she can get a regular food-service job in the community. That’s no small task. Many companies throw away an application that indicates a job candidate has a felony record.
Wiseman knows success will be limited at the Urbean Cafe.
“Not everybody is a success story,” he said.
Still, the cafe is thriving with as much as $25,000 in revenue every month. Wiseman said it is too early to talk about employees who have moved to private-business jobs.
It’s more than a cafe for the employees. It’s a support system similar to a family.
Wiseman makes allowances for the monthly meetings with probation officers, weekly drug tests and transportation problems of the employees. He often takes them around town himself.
The nonprofit dedicates 10 percent of its revenue to “re-entry assistance” that includes buying work boots and bus passes for employees.
“They’ve blessed me in so many ways, I just can’t say,” Joy said.
Dennis Shawhan, executive director of Broken Chains, sees some trends in his hiring.
“Women have more baggage from the past, but men are harder to work with,” he said.
And Wiseman said he tries never to be surprised when things don’t work out.
“You have to plan for failure because it’s going to happen,” he said.
He also has to make it clear the job is only a steppingstone to a permanent position.
“I don’t want them to be lifetime comfortable here, because I want them to move on,” he said.
Stephen A. JohnsonGrove, deputy director for policy at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in Cincinnati, said ex-convicts face a tough time finding jobs for three reasons:
• Laws prevent them from holding certain jobs. Sex offenders, for example, can’t work at the Urbean Cafe because children use the transit center.
• Employers fear the trustworthiness of former convicts.
• They have spent so much time in trouble, many lack the skills to hold many jobs.
JohnsonGrove said 1.9 million Ohioans have some kind of conviction in their past.
Robert K. Pfaff, RTA’s executive director, said he and the bus system’s board always wanted a nonprofit to operate the cafe. A service for disabled people said it wasn’t able to expand in 2009 when the center opened, so another prison ministry was given the contract. That operation decided to get out of the business and handed it over to Broken Chains about a year ago.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.