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January 2, 1995
Can Workfare Work?

George McDonald's Ready, Willing & Able program has some important lessons to teach Mayor Giuliani -- if it survives his budget cuts.

by Eric Pooley
Like just about every president of every social-service agency in town, George McDonald got some bad news for Christmas: The Giuliani administration had cut funding to his program by one third, and he had an instant $200,000 deficit. Never mind that McDonald's 5-year-old agency -- Ready, Willing and Able (RWA) ?- has saved the city millions by taking some 250 homeless men out of shelters, getting them off drugs and welfare, and putting them to work. Never mind that an independent auditor has shown that 72 percent of RWA's graduates still had market-rate apartments and private-sector jobs as long as three years after leaving the program, or that politicians from Jack Kemp to Henry Cisneros have showered McDonald with awards. And never mind that Rudy Giuliani's new workfare program, which aims to have 80,000 welfare recipients working for their checks by next year, has plenty to learn from McDonald. The city is cutting everything -- and it may not want to hear what McDonald has to say, because his program shows what's missing from the city's workfare plan.

When I met McDonald, in 1988, the former sportswear executive was handing out sandwiches at Grand Central Terminal. Homeless people would thank him, then ask if he had a job or a room to go with the sandwich. In 1989, he set about finding those jobs and rooms. His homeless-advocacy group, The Doe Fund, launched RWA by turning a Bedford-Stuyvesant building into a residence where homeless men would live while they learned a trade (and earned a living) by renovating city-owned apartments for other homeless people ?- an idea of uncommon simplicity and elegance. By 1993, a $1.5-million contract with the Department of Housing Preservation & Development was paying twelve crews of six men each to clean, paint, and plaster abandoned city buildings.

The best welfare-to-work programs are often accused of "creaming" -? accepting clients who would have made it into a job without anyone's help. But the people in McDonald's crews were scraped out of the shelter system; they tend to be the welfare population's hardest-core. Most have drug problems and prison records, and many have never held a job. Yet in McDonald's program they pay $65 a week for room and board in RWA's residence in Bed-Stuy, passing random drug tests, earning $5 an hour at demanding work, saving money, and hunting for jobs. Of course, more than half of the clients don't graduate ? they get thrown out for drugs or fighting, drop out on their own, or transfer into drug treatment. But an astonishing 40 percent of homeless people who enter the program have gone on to find private-sector jobs -? as clerks, security guards, cooks, construction workers, and office assistants.

Overwhelmingly, those who graduate stay off welfare and homeless rolls. Most of them also pay to support the children they fathered and forgot during their lost years. In other words, they do what everyone says they want welfare recipients to do. All of which was making McDonald feel pretty good until the city decided to cut almost $500,000 of his $1.5-million contract. Now he faced the prospect of disbanding four of his crews and putting as many as two dozen formerly homeless men back on the street.

"I could have brought my people down to City Hall Park and waited in line to protest," says McDonald, 50, "and it would have been the same as always ?- negative, fist-shaking, and nothing would have changed. I wanted to try something different. With all of the divisive rhetoric flying around, I was looking for something to unite us."

An idea came to him one morning while he was on his way to The Doe Fund's office. Wading through the litter that carpets the East 86th Street commercial strip, wondering why the area doesn't yet have a business-improvement district to pay for a cleanup job the city obviously isn't handling, McDonald saw his opening: Instead of disbanding his crews, he'd deploy them to sweep 86th Street every day. The Doe Fund would absorb the costs and hope that street sweepers in crisp blue jumpsuits would generate goodwill -? and donations ?- for the program. "Some visibility couldn't hurt," he says.

Soon after the street cleaning began, in mid-November, checks started coming in -? sent by mail, slipped under the office door. By last week, the fund had raised half the $200,000 it needed before year-end (Toyota of North America kicked in $35,000 and a new pickup truck). Holiday shoppers on 86th Street were stopping to thank the cleanup men. The manager of a local hamburger joint stood the street sweepers to free burgers, and the florist -? in a real Christmas Carol gesture ?- gave crew member Juan Wright his first poinsettia. "I never really had a family," says Wright, who has been a Times Square street hustler for most of his 33 years. "I'd like to be able to come home, sit down, have Christmas myself."

Though Ready, Willing & Able owes some of its success to its boutique size, it has plenty to teach the Giuliani administration as the city launches its own mammoth workfare program -? but McDonald has never been granted an audience by city officials. His lessons wouldn't be happy ones in any event, because what makes RWA work ?- a rigid structure and intensive, multifaceted help for men trying to enter the world of work -? is missing from the city's plan.

Giuliani's initial workfare model doesn't try to place welfare recipients in private-sector jobs, let alone support them once they get there. Although careful placement and intensive follow-up is the hallmark of every successful welfare-to-work program, these things cost money ?- and the fiscally strapped city intends to save $80 million a year with its initiative. "There's no money to spend on training, follow-up or support," says Richard Schwartz, the mayor's senior policy adviser. "It just doesn't exist."

Supervising workfare clients tends to be expensive, but Giuliani plans to cut his costs while forcing able-bodied people who receive Home Relief checks to work for the city -? shoveling snow, cleaning parks, scrubbing graffiti. Those goals are worthy: New York is one of the few states that guarantees welfare checks to able-bodied men, and the city's Home Relief program, with some 244,000 recipients (a third of whom are capable of working), costs $700 million a year. The savings will come, Giuliani says, from beefing up fraud detection and denying benefits to those who don't show up for work. (The city would like to drop them from the rolls permanently, but the state constitution says the indigent are entitled to assistance; look for Pataki to reinterpret that clause in his first months in office.) Some advocates predict that the city's savings will come from "churning" ? closing Home Relief cases indiscriminately, driving people into homelessness. With that fear in the air, it bears re

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