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January 9, 2003
Doe Fund Project Cleaning Up Western Queens Biz District

by Paul Menchaca
Jerry Ottomanelli, a butcher at S. Ottomanelli and Son's Prime Meat Shop, speaks with pride about the fact that his Woodside store has a new glowing Zagat rating and also beat out 700 other businesses in a contest on the cleanest store in New York City.

But now, thanks to the introduction of the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able workers into the community two weeks ago, Ottomanelli also speaks with pride about how clean the entire neighborhood has become. This is something he could not do before the project was brought into Woodside and Sunnyside to clean up Roosevelt Avenue and parts of Queens Boulevard between 45th and 61st Streets.

"It helps a lot. It's a big difference," said Ottomanelli, whose father, Salvatore, has owned the butcher shop for 45 years. "The guys do a great job. There used to be trash everywhere, but now they're cleaning the neighborhood."

The Doe Fund is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1985 to help homeless men become self-sufficient by providing housing, jobs, life skills and education. The street-cleaning project is done through Ready, Willing & Able, one of the Doe Fund's biggest programs.

Councilman Eric Gioia, who represents Council District 26, spearheaded the efforts to bring the program into the neighborhoods by securing funding for the first six months of work. The local development corporation, Woodside on the Move, served as a liaison for the project.

Gioia is hoping the cleaner streets will galvanize the local business community to come together and help fund the project indefinitely. For the councilman, the clean-up represents a personal investment, since his family has owned the Roosevelt Avenue flower shop, Nunziato's Florist in Woodside, for over 100 years.

"I spoke with one store owner on Roosevelt Avenue who told me that he used to have to sweep (outside) four, five or six times a day, and now he has to sweep maybe once a day," Gioia said at a press conference last week in Woodside. "We hope this will be an invitation for parents who have kids and for visitors to check out some of the best restaurants, butcher shops and florists in the entire state. Roosevelt Avenue should be as clean as Park Avenue."

George McDonald, founder and president of the Doe Fund, praised Gioia's efforts and the ability of "politicians, the community and non-profit organizations to come together for the good of the neighborhood."

McDonald also noted the two-fold aim of the Doe Fund to help the community, while also helping the men who are participating in the program.

"We are providing an opportunity for formerly homeless men who have taken responsibility for their lives to create something better for themselves," he said. "We hope that (the clean up) will also be a catalyst for the businesses to come together and continue to grow. I think more than anything it shows that change is possible."

Gioia echoed these sentiments. "I'm very proud of this neighborhood and I am very pleased that Roosevelt Avenue is going to look nicer. This shows that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can become whatever you want. It really is the American Dream."

Craig Trotta, assistant director at Ready, Willing and Able, and a graduate of the Doe Fund, will oversee the field operations in Western Queens. Four men, all dressed in blue jumpsuits, are assigned to the project and work five days a week, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.

The men sweep, clean the areas around the trees in the neighborhood, clean up graffiti and also do snow removal.

"As nice as it is to make a difference in the community, it makes a difference in the guys' lives," Trotta said. "It gives the guys a chance to change their lives."

Gary Burden, 39, moved to Brooklyn to live with friends after he lost his job and became homeless in Colorado. He soon wound up homeless in New York City and had been on the streets for over a year before he enrolled in the Doe Fund.

As he prepared to start sweeping Roosevelt Avenue last week, he talked about his hopes to use this new opportunity as a springboard to a new career. He wants to go to school for computer training.

"There are absolutely no negatives to the program," he said. "It's absolutely unequal. Instead of being homeless, I've got a way to get something started and look for work. And it keeps me off the streets while I do it."

The men are paid $5.50 to $6.50 an hour for their work. They pay $65 a week for room and board and put $30 a week into a savings account.

Dorothy Pfister, a Maspeth resident who works at H & R Block at the corner or Roosevelt Avenue and 61st Street, has noticed the difference in the neighborhood since the workers began cleaning the streets two weeks ago.

"We used to have to go outside all the time to sweep, and now we rarely have to," she said. "It's really become much cleaner. I think it's a great idea."

Thomas Ryan, executive director of Woodside on the Move, believes the Doe Fund will bring far-reaching improvements to the community.

"I think there will be a great renaissance here in Woodside," he said. "It's going to make Woodside a better place to live."

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