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December 25, 1994
Cleaning Streets and Changing Images

by Bruce Lambert
No one asked them to do it, but everyone seems delighted that they are. Since mid-November, a volunteer crew of 14 formerly homeless men has been sweeping sidewalks and gutters and bagging trash from 85th to 87th Streets between Park and First Avenues.

"It's excellent," said Alexander Poulos, as he slapped hot dogs into buns at the Papaya King at the hectic corner of Third Avenue and 86th Street. "They're always here, working conscientiously every day. They keep things clean. They give us a good image -- and help us avoid getting sanitation summonses."

The crew, dressed in blue jump suits, works for the Ready, Willing and Able program of The Doe Fund, which helps homeless people and has its office at 232 East 84th Street. It has other crews renovating city-owned apartments.

The goals of the new cleanup project are to give participants productive work, show the public what homeless people can do and provide a springboard to other jobs.

"We want to demonstrate that work works and put a face on the homeless, to humanize them," said George T. McDonald, founder of the fund. "People who used to beg on streets like 86th are now in a residential program giving back to the community in a visible way."

The project also is intended to help allay concerns about an AIDS residence the fund is building at 331 East 86th Street.

Most of the workers are recovering from alcohol or drug addictions and receive counseling and training. Their jobs start at $5 an hour. Every week they save $30 and pay $65 for rent and food at a group home in Brooklyn.

Donations of $5 to $1,000 are keeping the project afloat. Toyota contributed a pickup truck and steam machine for removing graffiti. Mr. McDonald is seeking support to make the program permanent and expand it.

That might happen through the coincidental plan to form the Yorkville-86th Street business improvement district.

Nancy Ploeger, executive director of the East Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, said the cleanup gives a good preview of the district. When it is set up, Ms. Ploeger said she wants The Doe Fund to bid for its sanitation contract.

"The merchants are very happy with them," she said. "It's a wonderful idea to spread throughout the whole city."

The workers, who greet passers-by and happily provide fliers explaining the program to those who ask, say their efforts get a warm response.

"It makes you feel good to hear from someone that you're doing a good job," said Marlow Green, a crew member who is a 35-year-old Navy veteran from Manhattan. "It gives you that feeling of self-worth."

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