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January 5, 2003
Cleaning Up Sidewalks and Lives

Doe Fund project scours Woodside and helps four men get themselves back on track

by Merle English
It was pouring on a recent weekday as four men in blue overalls and caps labeled "The Doe Fund" swept litter from gutters and sidewalks along Roosevelt Avenue in the Woodside business corridor.

Merchants in restaurants, flower shops, bakeries and other small businesses in the area agreed that the streets in front of their establishments have been a lot cleaner since Dec. 12, when the maintenance crew started working with the Doe Fund in cleanup jobs.

"They're doing good, very good," said Patel Ghanshyam, proprietor of a beer, soda and news business near the subway station at Roosevelt Avenue and 61st Street.

Taking a few moments from his chores in Ottomanelli & Sons, a family butcher shop spanning three generations, co-owner Jerry Ottomanelli commented on the cleanup: "When the front [of the shop] looks nice, it's more appetizing to people. I'm very happy. All my life I'm living here I've never seen anybody take such pride."

For the men in the blue overalls, that praise was confirmation that they were doing a good job, working 35-hour weeks for $5.50 to $6.50 an hour from the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able program. The Doe Fund is a Manhattan-based nonprofit organization that helps homeless men and women achieve self-sufficiency.

The organization's Ready, Willing and Able program got involved when Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside) wanted to see cleaner streets in the neighborhood where he was born, grew up and elected. His family owns and runs Nunziato Florists, one of Woodside's many mom-and-pop stores.

Drawing on his discretionary funds, Gioia - who was elected a year ago - made it possible for the four homeless men to participate in the Ready, Willing and Able program's Community Improvement Project. Gioia couldn't give an exact amount of the allocation, but the men's average weekly earnings for the six-month program total about $24,000.

"I wanted to do this a week after I was elected," he said.

Ready, Willing and Able is a residential and work training program for homeless men re-entering the work force. (The Doe Fund runs a similar program for women.) The participants are randomly tested for drugs and are given opportunities to sit for the high school equivalency test, and take advantage of literacy and computer training and other support that enables them to "work and stay clean," said Isabel McDevitt, a Doe Fund spokeswoman.

The Doe workers will clean 20 square blocks in Woodside for six months as part of a training stint that lasts from nine months to a year, then go on to permanent jobs and their own apartments, McDevitt said.

Gioia hopes the street-cleaning project will continue in Woodside beyond the six months, but hopes local merchants will help to fund it.

"I want to see a revitalization along the Roosevelt Avenue, Queens Boulevard commercial strip. This is the first step in my plan to make this a place people will come to shop and mothers will push their strollers," Gioia said. "Making the streets clean is part of building people's confidence and pride in their neighborhood."

The councilman views the men in the Doe Fund Community Improvement Program as an integral part of Woodside. "Each has overcome personal struggle in their life," he said. They are grateful for positive changes the Doe program is making in their lives.

Life "went downhill" for one of them, Albert Rochet, 47, a former Jackson Heights resident, after he lost his job as a licensed practical nurse in Los Angeles in 1993, and was divorced. He became homeless in 1995.

"I was very depressed," Rochet said. "I didn't feel I'd be able to function on the job." He said the Doe Fund "gave me a place to live, a job, and they gave me my self-respect back."

Edward Lee Cooper, 33, a former Brooklyn resident and another member of the cleanup crew, held seasonal jobs until February 2001. He said he couldn't keep up with his rent and was evicted.

Sweeping up Woodside, Cooper said, "is a very good idea because the area was very messy. We've done a good job maintaining it. I'm hoping to regain some stability from this program, to be able to stand on my own two feet once again."

Gary Burden, 39, the third crew member, was a forklift driver living in Boulder, Colo. He held jobs sporadically, and came to New York in October when he couldn't get work.

"People who see us on the streets see somebody who isn't using drugs and alcohol performing a service that in New York is a necessary job."

The fourth member of the crew, Jonathan Carter, 38, a former East Elmhurst resident and school lunch helper, came to the Doe program after being incarcerated for 8 1/2 years for robbery.

"All humans want to be in an environment conducive to them, clean and safe," Carter said of his job. "We sweep, we dump garbage, pick up trash so the community will be cleaner. People say, 'You guys do a great job.' I tell them I'm glad to be in Woodside. Just because I pick up trash, I'm not trash. This program is going to provide me with the opportunity to do things as long as I stay focused."

The men are thankful for the work, and, like Gioia and the Doe Fund, would like to see it continue.

McDevitt expressed hope that the effort, along with Woodside on the Move - a local development corporation that provides storage for equipment and which McDevitt called "the eyes and ears of the operation" - will lead to an extension.

"Hopefully the merchants in the area will see the difference we are making," McDevitt said, "and will work with the councilman to expand the project and keep it going."

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