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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
From USA Today.