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September 3, 2003
Sweeping Streets Replaces Living on Them

Formerly Homeless D.C. Men Trade Muscle for Shelter, Training, Counseling

by Sewell Chan
The white van pulled into the Union Station parking garage shortly after 7:30 a.m. Eight men in uniforms, some still groggy with sleep, gathered by an office trailer tucked into a corner. They put the simple tools of their new trade -- brooms and dustpans -- into giant trash cans. And then slowly, in pairs, they rolled the empty cans down a ramp, past the taxicabs and office workers and out onto the streets of Capitol Hill.

For these men, all homeless, the routine is less about the mundane tasks of sweeping gutters and emptying garbage cans than about the smallest steps toward self-sufficiency: waking up, going to work, earning a paycheck. "This is my last shot at regular life," James P. Johnson, 29, a high school dropout who at one time sold cocaine and heroin and is now studying to receive a general equivalency diploma, said bluntly as he swept the streets.

Johnson and the others have signed up for Ready, Willing & Able, a program that since April has paid them $5.50 an hour to tend the curbs and sidewalks just east of the Capitol. It is one of the few programs for the District's homeless that explicitly links work with housing. Other programs, including those based in city-funded shelters, provide homeless adults with job referrals but do not offer training and employment.

Ready, Willing & Able focuses on individual improvement. But some experts say that emphasis ignores bigger problems, such as the high cost of housing, the shortage of jobs for men with little education and few job skills and the barriers facing those with criminal convictions and histories of substance abuse.

A charity, Gospel Rescue Ministries of Washington, D.C., runs the program with administrative help from the Doe Fund Inc., a nonprofit group that started the program in New York in 1990.

Most of the D.C. program's funding comes from the federal government. The rest is from a $129,384-a-year contract the Gospel Rescue Ministries shelter has with the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District, which stretches from Union Station south to the Capitol and east along Pennsylvania Avenue to Eastern Market and Barney Circle.

Patty Brosmer, executive director of the business improvement district, which began operations in April and is funded by a special property tax assessment, said she was attracted to the program because the men's wages are covered partly by outside funding.

"However, at full price we would probably go with them anyway," she said. "We've gotten amazing feedback."

All but one of the men share sleeping quarters on the fifth floor of Gospel Rescue Ministries in Chinatown. They must return each night by 11 to the 110-bed shelter, which was founded in 1906 and is known as "the Mission." The men receive substance abuse counseling and are offered academic and vocational classes. They are tested twice a week for drug use and referred to counseling if they fail.

They each work five days a week with rotating weekend shifts and get a $1-an-hour raise after six months in the program. Each week, $30 from each worker's wages is deposited in a savings account, which the Doe Fund supplements with a matching grant when the worker completes the program.

The program enrolls up to 15 men at one time. The dropout rate is high -- seven have left since April for a variety of reasons, including breaking rules and relapsing into drug use. The men are expected to work nine months before getting job placement and housing assistance. Participants typically find work and permanent housing after 13 to 14 months, and the program stays in touch with participants for up to five years.

"We provide them a vehicle that gets them into mainstream America," said George T. McDonald, who started the Doe Fund in 1985. "After that, all you need to do is get out of the way, and they start climbing our economic ladder."

McDonald, a former clothing marketer, began working with homeless people by distributing meals in Manhattan. "While the people appreciated the sandwich, the milk and the apple, what I kept hearing over and over again is that people wanted a room and a job to pay for it," he said.

The Doe Fund expanded to the District in 1995, to Jersey City in 1998 and to Philadelphia in 2001. But its first foray into Washington, supported by $3.9 million in federal and city grants, was a failure.

In 2000, District officials terminated funding, saying the program was poorly run and expensive. Some city officials also said they resented the Doe Fund's lobbying of members of Congress, who used their authority over the D.C. budget to keep the program afloat.

In April, the Doe Fund revived the program in Washington through a two-year agreement with Gospel Rescue Ministries, using a $500,000 federal appropriation held over from 2001. Both groups plan to continue the program after that money runs out, with additional grants and private fundraising.

Some scholars and advocates have criticized McDonald's vision as well-intentioned but inadequate, given the shortage of affordable housing.

"Helping people who are able to work to work so that they can pay permanent housing rent is hard to criticize, but there's a much broader problem that government at all levels has failed to address," said Steven Banks, who coordinates the homeless rights project for the Legal Aid Society of New York.

Gwendolyn A. Dordick, a Harvard University sociologist who studies homelessness, said that such short-term job programs as Ready, Willing & Able often are "temporary, stopgap measures."

To leave and stay out of homelessness, she said, people need stable jobs that pay more than minimum wage and programs such as rental assistance, not just classes to address substance abuse and other individual problems.

McDonald said he recognizes the need for more housing but insisted that helping individuals who want to work is the only solution for the short term. "We prepare people to access the housing market with the one thing America recognizes, and that's money," he said.

To hear the men participating in the D.C. program tell it, both perspectives contain some truth.

Revell T. Anderson and John C. Matthews began on a recent Thursday at 7:55 a.m., pushing cans south on Second Street, passing behind the Supreme Court building and the Library of Congress.

"It gets your body used to getting up in the morning, doing something good instead of laying in bed until 10 or 11 o'clock," said Anderson, 42, a native Washingtonian who left prison in April 2002 after serving time for cocaine distribution and assault. "It allows me a new beginning, a new start. Not everyone is going to appreciate being out here picking up trash, but for me, work is work, and it makes my day go."

Matthews, 54, a North Carolina native, served time on drug and robbery charges before his most recent release in March 2002. He started cleaning the streets in July of this year after completing a mandator

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