Cleanslate preps workers for real world

They are described as “individuals with high barriers to employment” — felons, recovering drug addicts, all manner of people taking their first tentative steps away from the street.

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A man in a safety vest pushes two garbage cans along a sidewalk.

Daniel, 37, collecting trash along Oakwood Boulevard for Cleanslate, an organization that trains Chicagoans to hold jobs and hooks them up with paying work.

Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times

“Let’s get to work,” declares Tommy Wells, to no one in particular, loading empty garbage cans into a white pickup. “Make it a great day! Ladies and gentlemen. And it’s raining.”

It sure is, a few minutes before 6 a.m., coming down hard. Some 60 men and women in identical baseball caps and gray vests trimmed with neon green gather in a large garage on South Ashland, waiting, snatches of conversation reflecting areas of the city that tourists never visit.

“They wasted that boy — shot him in the face three times.”

“This world just going crazy. It doesn’t matter where you go. In Chicago? It don’t matter where you go. Crime is everywhere.”

Opinion bug


But not here. Here crime and homelessness, drug addiction and despondency are held at bay, thanks to the organization whose name is on those vests and hats: “Cleanslate” — operated by Cara, a social service program that since its founding in 1991 has paired more than 10,000 jobs with what it tactfully calls “individuals with high barriers to employment” — felons, recovering drug addicts, all manner of people taking their first tentative steps away from the street. 

The work is not elegant. 

“Mainly cleaning up sidewalks and curbs, some landscaping,” says Enise, 33. She’s worked a year for Cleanslate, which asks that workers’ last names not be used, so this first rung doesn’t hold them back higher up the ladder.

Throughout the week they meet at work sites across the city; clients stretch from Uptown United to Hyde Park Downtown, and include Loyola University, Wrigley Field, and The Habitat Company. On Fridays, they gather for paychecks and TLC. 

Office support manager Lisa Peters stands at a table, handing out job assignments but also acting as a crucial first line of defense for the working world: part fashion coach, part drill sergeant, part concerned friend.

“That chains gotta go in.”

“You good today? “

“You get enough sleep last night?”

”What’s wrong with you? Fix it, fix it!”

“Put the ID around. Show who you are.”

A fashionably decked-out woman who seems ready for — or fresh from — a club presents herself. 

”Is that what you wear to work?” says Peters. “Why are you laughing? That was funny? You got that purse, girl? What are you going to do? You’re going to have to put your stuff in your pockets. You know you can’t work in a coat. You got a hood?”

The woman hastily rearranges herself.

”What we do here is not just about getting a job,” says Tekorah Martin, manager of recruitment and admissions, handing out CTA cards. “We focus on getting a job and what you are going to do to keep it. That’s why our program is so intense. We want to make sure that students are prepared for the real world.”

The transit cards go only to newcomers who haven’t yet received a paycheck. After that, commuting is just one of their many new responsibilities. Someone tries to get a card anyway and is turned down, firmly.

”That’s not happening,” Martin says. “You know you’re off my list. Nice try though.”

”Worth a shot...” he mutters.

”I know,” Martin says, and they both laugh. “And I blocked it!”

The man loading the truck, Tommy Wells, has been at Cleanslate for two years.

”Great opportunity,” he says. “They give you a lot of time to meditate on yourself to make sure things are better. A good opportunity for interns here to learn how to work and better themselves. Whatever situation they was in, they can better themselves to get out of it. We try to motivate them each and every day.”

A man rings a school bell in a crowd of people wearing safety vests.

“Motivations” is a joyous meeting Cara’s Cleanslate program holds to psych themselves up for their workday; the meeting includes songs, stories, cheers and, when someone gets an outside job, there’s also the joyous ringing of a bell.

Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times

”Motivations” isn’t just a concept, it’s an event — a circle where gratitude is expressed. The theme of today’s is “People Who Inspire Me,” and it includes thanking coworkers and leaders. Songs are sung and blessings listed, including the acquisition of a permanent job, celebrated by ringing a bell.

Then they head to Wicker Park, Roseland, Little Village. I tag along with a crew in Bronzeville, talking to Daniel, 37. After losing a steady job at the CTA, the father of four finds himself needing to begin again. 

”I tried Uber, I tried Lyft,” he says, picking garbage out of the gutter along Oakwood Boulevard. “I felt my time would be spent better at an actual job.”

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