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November 7, 2003
Ready, Willing & Able to Keep Forest Hills Clean

Program houses homeless and helps them return to work

by Judith Young
Two men in blue uniforms have become a familiar sight in Forest Hills.

Armed with brooms and trash cans on wheels, the duo patrols the commercial district along Continental Avenue and Austin Street, keeping sidewalks spiffy.

Carmelo Rivera and Donnell Johnson are part of The Doe Fund Inc.'s Ready, Willing and Able program, which provides training, social services and employment to the homeless.

Many residents and store owners in Forest Hills said they noticed the difference in how clean their community is since the program's workers returned to Forest Hills in October after a five-month hiatus because of funding problems. Several people greet the two men by name.

"They're the greatest people in the world," Alan Klowalczuk of Al's Coffee said about Johnson and Rivera. "They're very courteous and attentive.... They're energetic and with a purpose. It's not just another job to them."

However, not too long ago the men's circumstances were different.

Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico 44 years ago and moved to New York City as a child, said he was a heroin addict at age 13. He held numerous odd jobs but spent all his money on drugs. He lost his Brooklyn apartment after failing to pay rent.

Over the years, he stayed wherever he could - with family, at homeless shelters, on the streets, and even prison on a drug possession conviction. In July of 2002, he hit bottom.

"There was a lot of pain and I was just tired of that," he said. "I was numbing myself to the point where I couldn't stop doing it."

He ended up at a shelter run by the Salvation Army, where he enrolled in a substance detoxification program. It was there that he learned of the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps people break the cycle of homelessness, welfare dependency and prison.

Johnson, 42, a chronic alcoholic since age 9, alternated between alcoholism and periods of sobriety as he was in and out of prison in his native Chicago. In the late '80s, he said, he started doing cocaine and crack to replace his drinking habit.

"I worked at different places and every time I got some money, I would go out and party since I didn't know anything about the disease," he said.

Eventually Johnson lost his home and family. Homeless and addicted, he stayed at shelters, with friends and family, even empty buildings as he tried to stay clean. He even thought of committing suicide until he discovered Christianity. A friend suggested that he try the Doe Fund in New York. In June, Johnson made an appointment and two days later he was enrolled.

The Ready, Willing and Able program provides housing for homeless men and women, assigning them to clean the streets in various neighborhoods in hopes of rehabilitating them back into the workforce. The program lasts 12 to 18 months, with mandatory random drug and alcohol testing twice weekly. The group boasts more than 1,500 graduates and said that 81 percent remain employed after a year.

Trainees are paid a starting salary of $5.50 an hour and receive counseling, medical and social services. They also are taught financial independence and how to stick to a budget. Each is required to pay $30 a week for meals and rent in dormitory-style housing, and contribute $30 weekly to a savings plan that the fund matches. Upon graduation, each will have saved more than $2,000. The organization also helps with job placement and permanent housing.

"When you see a homeless person laying on the street, someone would think that they're beyond help. We think that they have potential and, with the right structure and environment, they can go on to lead productive lives," said president George McDonald, who founded the New York-based organization in 1990 to help the city's homeless.

Ready, Willing and Able manages 170 trainees in the city; they work or have worked in various locations in Queens including Woodside and downtown Flushing. (The program also operates in Philadelphia and Jersey City, N.J.) Next month, the Doe Fund will open a new 400-bed facility in East Williamsburg with plans to expand further in Brooklyn.

The program had been a part of Forest Hills since October 2000, until funding ran out in May. More than $38,000 was raised by last month to pay for a one-year contract for two trainees. The money came from area merchants and included funds secured by City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills) and state Assemb. Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills). Both Rivera and Johnson are grateful.

Now in his fifth month in the program and sober for more than a year, Johnson credits the Doe Fund for giving him a new start.

"I'm proud of myself," he said. "I've come a long way. When people come up to me to thank us, I tell them, thank you for having us."

Upon graduation, he hopes to get his food vendor's license or get a job in a restaurant - and reconcile with his 18-year-old daughter.

Rivera wants to help others like himself and is aiming for a job as a substance abuse counselor with the Doe Fund. "It's a difference you can tell," he said. "It's a positive environment."

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