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November 24, 1997
Trainees gaining jobs and losing addictions

N.Y. fund helps vagrants clean up streets -- and lives

by Henry Goldman
NEW YORK -- Not long ago, they were sleeping on the streets; now they're cleaning them.

An army of men in blue jumpsuits emblazoned with the slogan "Ready Willing & Able," they can be found seven days a week carrying their brooms and plastic trash containers up and down the avenues of Manhattan's upper east and west sides.

They are trainees for The Doe Fund, a small, but growing nonprofit enterprise with a $10 million annual budget that takes in homeless and drug-addicted vagrants and more often than not turns them out as clear-eyed, apartment-dwelling job holders.

What makes The Doe Fund different from other homeless programs is that it tries to replicate the real world for its participants. It doesn't give them anything, or take anything from them, without money changing hands.

Those who live at a Doe Fund facility pay $65 a week for room and board, and earn $6.50 to $7.50 an hour for work such as sweeping the sidewalks. After nine months, each trainee who has saved $1,000 gets another $1,000 bonus.

And it seems to work. While statistics are hard to come by, organizers claim that more than half of the trainees make it through the first two years drug-free, with jobs and their own places to live.

"We believe that once our guys get a taste of what it's like to save some money and buy something nice for themselves or someone they care about, that's the most powerful incentive you can have," founder George McDonald said.

In addition, each trainee signs a contract agreeing to random drug testing; of 140 tested recently at the Harlem residence, one tested positive for cocaine, another for alcohol. Those two men face a one-month probation, in which benefits are reduced and a strict curfew imposed.

Chris Woolbright, 37, is one of those successes. His life of drugs, petty crime, and eating out of trash cans turned around in 1990, he said, when The Doe Fund took him in. Then, after months of sweeping the sidewalk in front of a housewares store at 84th Street and Third Avenue, he marched in and asked for a job. The manager said that, after having seen how hard Woolbright worked, hiring him was a no-brainer.

Woolbright was hired away from a management training program with Lechter's recently when McDonald offered him more money as a supervisor of the street-cleaning crews. Even so, Woolbright still works two days a week at the housewares store, opening the door, running the cash register, doing customer service.

"He's just a super guy who does everything and anything you ask him to do," store manager Orlando Cintron said.

The Doe Fund is named after Mama Doe, a homeless woman found dead on a bench in New York's Grand Central Station on Christmas Day 1985. Her death galvanized McDonald, who knew her from his volunteer efforts to feed her and the other men and women who inhabited the benches and floor of the train station.

In those days, McDonald, 53, who retired early after a lucrative career in the apparel industry, worked with New York's Coalition of the Homeless fighting City Hall to gain money for homeless shelters. Those efforts led to a lawsuit, which ended in a consent decree creating a right to shelter for the city's homeless. Shortly thereafter, he broke away from that organization, convinced that it had only compounded the problem by "providing a handout, when what people really need is a hand up."

In 1989, he persuaded Mayor Ed Koch and a group of real estate executives to put up $1.8 million to buy and renovate a 70-bed residence for the homeless in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. Now the program includes a 200-bed residence in Harlem and a 40-bed facility in Washington, D.C., which held its first graduation ceremony last week.

The Washington program helped get its start with a $200,000 grant from Toyota, which has helped support The Doe Fund since 1994. The fund gets its annual budget from a variety of government and private sources. Increasingly, it has sought to develop its own entrepreneurial projects to generate revenue.

In Harlem, for example, about 30 Doe Fund trainees staff and manage a new facility that sends out hundreds of thousands of pieces of bulk mail under contract with companies such as Toyota, which pays $500,000 a year for the service.

The mailing center also processes The Doe Fund's mailings to 165,000 registered voters in the neighborhoods where the organization does street cleaning. McDonald says he expects this mailing, which cost $80,000, to bring in about $500,000 in individual contributions. His first mailing to 75,000 last year brought 6,000 contributions totaling $250,000.

McDonald said the street-sweeping idea came to him three years ago as he looked over the condition of his own neighborhood, and heard residents and merchants complaining about litter. He decided to outfit his trainees in the uniforms and send them into the streets without seeking approval from the city.

"I figured I'd do it and see if anyone complained," he said. "No one did."

Now The Doe Fund is about to win a $1 million contract to clean streets in a new business improvement district on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Mary Hollway, director of the Association for a Better New York, said merchants became concerned about the possibility that the service could end if The Doe Fund's revenue stream dried up.

"Merchants know people won't come shopping if the streets are a mess, and their presence gives the area a safer feeling," she said.

At Toyota, Tim Andree, the executive responsible for corporate philanthropy, said he wasn't inclined to give money to The Doe Fund or any other social program until McDonald and his wife, Harriet, showed up and plunked a sheaf of paper on his desk containing a list of 500 formerly homeless men who now hold jobs.

"They told me to call them up and talk to them," Andree recalled. "They said: 'This is our product.'"

One of those products is Paul Bailey, 51, who now manages The Doe Fund's accounts payable. About four years ago, McDonald encountered Bailey, gaunt and obviously ravaged by crack cocaine, standing on the sidewalk in the cold one evening as McDonald was about to enter a restaurant.

"I was holding the door open for people, panhandling, and I asked him for change," Bailey recalled. "George said no, but he offered me a job."

Bailey showed up at The Doe Fund office the next day, entered the program, and completed it two years later. He remained in the Bedford-Stuyvesant residence another year while he worked as the desk manager for a motel and went to college at night. Now he's living on his own in Brooklyn, three credits shy of obtaining his associate degree in accounting.

The Rev. Samuel McPherson, who runs the Washington program, describes McDonald as "a man born with a burden on his heart."

McPherson spoke earlier this month at the D.C. program's graduation ceremony at Georgetown University in the trendy, upscale neighborhoo

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