By Mary Otto
Past the crowd waiting at the metal detector and the laminated signs pointing to disability assistance and burial assistance, up on the fifth floor of the city Department of Human Services offices on H Street NE, there is a meeting going on.
It’s a TEP meeting. The short acronym encapsulates a very tall order.
The men and women hunched in the chairs are TANF Employment Providers, with TANF standing for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare.
They are the cadre of vendors hired by the city to move thousands of District’s welfare recipients into work as part of an ambitious TANF redesign program.
Many of the city’s 17,700 beneficiaries have been getting checks for years. But time is running out for them. A year ago, the District of Columbia implemented a 60-month time limit on welfare benefits.
More than 6,000 families who had been on the roles for more than five years saw their monthly stipends cut.
Another round of cuts was scheduled for Oct. 1. Then, last week, the city council passed emergency legislation to spend the $3.8 million needed to forestall the next round of reductions for six months and give the TANF redesign time to work. New welfare intake offices are being opened and new caseworkers are being brought on board with the goal of assessing 1,500 welfare recipients each month for the next six months and referring them on to TEP vendors.
But more reductions are coming for families who remain on the roles past the time limit.
These vendors must succeed where others have failed and move families off welfare before their stipends disappear altogether.
They are picking through the ruins of previous efforts, searching for clues, for signs, for answers. Among the challenges will be finding jobs for folks who have never been formally employed, who have criminal records, who are coping with homelessness or mental or physical or educational impairments.
Yet man who is running the meeting, David Ross, chief of the office of program monitoring at the city Department of Human Services, remains upbeat, cheerful.
He is telling a story, talking about his own stint as a young welfare case manager a decade ago. He is describing a client who was the bane of his existence. A negative and bitter woman, addicted, angry.
Then he calls her up to the center of the room.
Marian Meekins is casually yet neatly dressed. She has high cheekbones and carefully-combed hair. She is not the same woman he once knew.
“This is our customer. And when we talk about transformation , she is the embodiment of this redesigned TANF program.”
He asks her to talk of her own journey.
It has been a hard one but she does not flinch from recounting it.
“God placed it on my heart to come out and speak to you,” she tells the TEP crowd.
“I came from a family who sold dope, who sold drugs. That’s all I knew. No education. The only thing I knew was how to work the streets. So I got into it.”
She bore four children, she spent five years in prison. When she was first called into the city welfare office, she did not trust David Ross.
“I didn’t trust anyone, because hoes on the street don’t trust anyone.”
She threw all her anger at him, all her pain. He kept listening.
Then one day she said to him, “I have a drug problem. I need help.”
And he helped her. Others helped her too. She got clean and she has remained clean for three years.
Her life took another leap forward, she said, when she was assigned to a new TEP vendor, Grant Associates.
There was something about how the people at Grant embraced her, past and all she said.
In terms of welfare-to-work efforts undertaken by states and cities since President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act back in 1996, the District has lagged behind. But Grant Associates has enjoyed success in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, getting welfare beneficiaries into jobs by building relationships with employers and providing one-on-one attention to their “customers,” beneficiaries like Meekins, working with their barriers as well as their strengths.
At Grant, “they really love me,” she tells the TEP folks, now sitting hunched forward on their seats.
“They are really on my side.”
She asks the crowd not to lose faith in women like her.
“We are gonna be resistant. That’s all we know. We’ve got these problems,” she says. “But people are able to change.”
When she is finished, the crowd bursts into applause.
Marian Meekins does not stay for the entire TEP meeting. Instead she heads back to Grant Associates, located near the Navy Yard in Southeast to continue her job search. The cut that last year that reduced her monthly welfare stipend to $267 made life harder for her and her youngest child, 16-year-old Konovia, a bright girl who dreams of college. Even with rental assistance and food stamps, they struggle. Unpaid utility bills loom. The shrinking welfare checks have given her a heightened sense of urgency about finding work.
“They are putting a fire under me. And I am moving. I am changing.”
Still, the prospect of the narrowly averted Oct 1 cut, which would have left her and her daughter with less than $200 a month filled her with dread.
She is open to any kind of job but says she would love to do maintenance work.
“I love to clean. It gives me a sense of calm. It takes me to a different place.”
Passing the upscale restaurants and businesses along 8th Street SE, she shakes her head.
“We tell them we are from Grant Associates, welfare to work. They’ll tell you they are not hiring,” she says.
“Why don’t you give us a chance?”
She knows the answer. She also knows she is different now. But the world may take more convincing.
The offices of Grant Associates are impeccably neat and painted in light, hopeful colors.
Case manager Art Lockwood, a Gulf War veteran oversees Meekins’ efforts. Currently he and three other case managers at Grant are handling 160 unemployed clients. Sixty to 120 more jobseekers are expected to arrive at their offices within the next six months as the city’s TANF redesign goes into full swing.
They will sit in Dondrae McGee’s classroom for a week long training program that focuses on resume writing and interview skills as well as dreaming and planning for the future.
“A dream without a plan,” he warns, “is just a catnap.”
They will attend Monday and Thursday job clubs. They will keep records of their search for work. Grant program manager Vanessa Preston, a professionally dressed woman with a tiny silver envelope charm around her neck, will keep a careful watch over them. She knows the challenges, the fears, the baggage the barriers.
“The conventional wisdom says you can’t find a job for those candidates. That’s not our mode of operation,” she says. “We want to challenge the conventional wisdom.”
Out in the front room, Marian Meekins is seated at a computer. She begins filling out another application.