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Roots to Re-entry Project Provides Landscape Training to Formerly Incarcerated Men

The prospect of boosting his landscaping business’s bottom line was Erik Cooper’s initial reason for contracting to spruce up blighted, vacant lots in his hometown. But a decade spent participating in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia LandCare program has delivered benefits beyond mere dollar signs.

“We’re replacing dumping grounds and lots covered in trash and overgrown with weeds with a well-manicured space,” said Cooper, owner of C&H Landscapes. “It’s rewarding to see people in there playing checkers, cards, sitting under trees in their lounge chairs … not having to go outside of their community for a family gathering in the park.”

Equally gratifying is how LandCare’s Roots to Re-entry project lets Cooper employ and train formerly incarcerated people.

“We’re hiring people from the communities we serve,” said Cooper. “Some of them have moved on, done very well, gone back to school. I’ve become very passionate about all of this.

”Twenty-year-old LandCare’s added impact is its role in preventing crime. After vacant lots were turned into “pocket parks” with playground equipment, barbecue grills, et cetera, reported crimes involving guns fell by 29% in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, according to public health and crime researchers at Columbia University and University of Pennsylvania. Vandalism and other nuisance crimes also fell by 28%, according to that study, which spanned a decade and ended in 2008.

“Scholars who study urban problems are well aware of the powerful role that ‘place’ has in shaping crime; they understand that the two are tightly coupled,” researchers John McDonald and Charles Branas wrote in the Manhattan Institute’s September 2019 edition of Urban Policy.

In addition to a decline in violent crime, the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, also recorded an uptick in residents’ willingness to spend time outdoors. (Driven, at least partly, by those results, similar projects are underway or being launched in cities including Chicago; Flint, Michigan; Youngstown, Ohio; and New Orleans.)

“Vacant lots with overgrown grass, litter, abandoned cars don’t provide a clear sightline,” said Keith Green, director of the LandCare project. “After those lots are transformed, it’s hard to hide drugs there. It’s hard to hide guns on those lots. Those negative lots become a big positive for the community.”

Green continued: “Many of the Roots to Re-entry people who work on these vacant lots have told me that before they started doing this work, they used to litter consistently. Now, if they see someone about to litter, they’ll say, ‘Don’t do that. Put that in that trash can.’ … If we can change the mindset, we can rectify a problem.

”Funded by the City of Philadelphia and supported by Temple University, which provides landscaper certification for Roots to Re-entry graduates, LandCare manages 12,000 of an estimated 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia, Green said. LandCare helps build bandwidth and earnings for participating nonprofits and small businesses — 72% of them are minority-owned — and teaches those not already in the know how to bid on contracts and get the right business insurance. LandCare employs about 300 individuals annually.

Those workers clear an array of debris from sites, lay and grade new topsoil, and, where possible, plant trees. They erect 4-feet-tall posts and rail fencing along the borders of those sites. From April through early November, they mow grass, prune trees and tend to flowers.

Earning his own keep by clearing and maintaining previously vacant lots has been transformative for Gregory Sexton, on the payroll at C&H Landscape since leaving prison in January 2018.

“This is the longest I’ve been out of the prison and the longest I’ve ever had a job,” said Sexton, 46, adding that he’d been incarcerated, off and on, since when he was about 20 years old.

“This has helped me to turn around my life and see things in a different perspective,” he said. “I see that there is an opportunity for growth in any field where I apply myself. I never saw myself planting flowers, learning about all these different varieties of trees. It just feels good to be home with my children and granddaughter. She’s three, and I’m planting flowers with her this summer.”

For Erizhad Vaughan, 25, Roots to Re-entry was a valuable starting point. “My time with C&H provided me with a steady job and stability,” said Vaughan, now an information technology specialist to a chain of malls and their corporate headquarters.

From landscaping, he moved on to Year Up, a yearlong IT training, certification and internship, based at Pierce College in Philadelphia. “At C&H, I’d been promoted to supervisor,” Vaughn said. “I took a lot of what I learned about taking and using authority, about working with people into this new workplace. LandCare was just a great stepping stone.”

Several cities have contacted the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society about how to replicate its LandCare model, project director Green said.

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