The past few days have found Cornell Battle in Davis, east Sacramento and other neighborhoods around the region. Fifteen years ago, residents would have worried that he was casing their homes. Today, they hand him the keys to their cars.
Thirteen years at Folsom Prison gave Battle time to examine a life of drug addiction, theft and painful mistakes.
"When I got there, they had all kinds of 12-step programs, 12-step Bible study meetings, 12-step AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous," Battle, 56, told me. "I did them all. ... I wanted to know what the hell is wrong with me, how to stop this madness in my life."
Upon release, he went into the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center for five months, spent a month at Volunteers of America's detoxification center, and finally landed an apartment and a chance to rebuild his life with Cottage Housing Inc.
"I celebrated with Coke," Battle said, referring to the beverage, not the crack cocaine he once used.
Once at Quinn Cottages, Battle took to washing cars. If only he could start a carwash or get a job at one, he thought back then. He didn't know that Cornelius Taylor, a vice president at Cottage Housing, wanted to launch a business.
"A lot of our people because they've been in jail, homeless or on drugs they have extensive gaps in their work history," Taylor said. "We thought designing businesses where they could work would give them experience."
He, Battle and others at Cottage Housing visited Delancey Street in San Francisco, a residential educational program for people who have hit bottom. Once-unemployable ex-felons, former drug addicts and homeless people constructed a neighborhood called a "masterpiece of social design." They now run a restaurant, a bookstore and other businesses in the 400,000-square-foot complex.
Cottage Housing started smaller, launching Finishing Touch mobile detailing service. (Learn prices and more at www.ftdetailing. com.)
January brought the first customers, workers at Pinnacle Telecommunications.
"Talk about customer service," said Cecelia Lakatos Sullivan, Pinnacle's chief executive. "Cornell coordinates with an assistant on each site ... and does everybody's cars."
Now, six months later, Finishing Touch has inked a deal with the garage at 300 Capitol Mall to offer mobile detailing. The business is in the black, supplying general funds for Cottage Housing and a reserve for future investment.
One for the books
Around the same time that Cornelius Taylor was launching Finishing Touch, another Quinn Cottages resident, Dennis Dwyer, told him about a business he'd already started.
Dwyer had spent 18 months in county jail and state prison for selling methamphetamine. Like Battle, he found a bed at the Salvation Army rehab center. While there, he learned that anyone with email and online bank accounts could sell books at Amazon.com.
Trouble was, he had no idea what email was. "People would ask, 'Do you have an email address?' " said Dwyer, 47. "And I was thinking physical address."
Once established online, Dwyer had to find books.
"I would go out on my bike. I had $8 in the bank. I had a bank card, a bus pass and a backpack," he said. "I would go out every single day. ... If the bus went by a Goodwill, I'd jump out and I'd go in there, look through all the books, load up my backpack and go down to the library downtown, enter the information and see if they were worth any money. ... Pretty soon, I'd find a couple $20 books, but I paid 50 cents for them."
Dwyer was grossing $900 a month, but he figured that if he sold his inventory to Cottage Housing, the nonprofit could invest in it. In fact, Abundance Books, abundancebooksca.com, has bought a scanner and other equipment. Sales have nearly quadrupled, and it's logging a small profit.
Dwyer and Battle, graduates of Cottage Housing's program, now manage the enterprises they founded and employ four of the nonprofit's participants.
"Right now, as you and I are talking, my (teenage) daughter is at my house and doing the dishes," Dwyer said. " From where I was to where I am, it seems insurmountable."