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April 3, 2004
Residential service program seeks holistic answer to chronic homeless problem

by Madison J. Gray, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK -- For years Raymie Farmer fought an external struggle with violence, imprisonment and drug addiction, and an internal struggle to change his life.

Resolving those conflicts became easier after he learned about the Ready, Willing & Able residential training program.

"It took me a lot of pain and loss to realize I needed a change," said Farmer, 40, who had lived much of his life as a thief, drug dealer and addict and spent 16 years in and out of jail. "You try to stay clean, but your inside is dirty."

Farmer came to Ready, Willing & Able last year. More than 1,500 homeless people have gone through the largely city-funded residential, counseling and work training program since its founding by the nonprofit The Doe Fund in 1990. Besides three residential locations in New York, it runs smaller facilities in Jersey City, N.J., Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

"It took me 25 years to find my gift, and my gift was reaching out to people and speaking to people and I learned loyalty," he said. "And loyalty meant trust."

Farmer is now the house manager of the program's newest $23 million state-of-the-art 400-bed facility: the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Last week, he addressed 148 graduates of the program in Manhattan.

"People ask why I'm so hyped," Farmer said. "I say it's because I'm gifted and blessed to be here."

Those who enter the program get started on their new life with the issuance of a blue uniform and a street-sweeping job, for up to $6.50 per hour.

Ready, Willing & Able looks at homelessness as a chronic social disease rather than an urban problem. Its long-term goal is to make the homeless self-sufficient by teaching them life skills and offering vocational training in pest control, food handling, security and computers. Participants also can earn a high-school equivalency diploma.

The average person entering the program is male, African-American and in his late 30s. Many are former addicts who have spent time in prison -- major contributors, its founder George McDonald says, to the city's homelessness problem.

"Ninety-eight percent of these people have a history of drug and alcohol abuse," McDonald said. "Many grew up using drugs. We get the results of a failed social system."

McDonald, a longtime homeless advocate, left a private sector career in the 1980s to found The Doe Fund, named for a homeless woman who froze to death outside Grand Central Terminal.

McDonald and his wife, Harriet, developed Ready, Willing & Able to provide an alternative to the city's shelter system that they say is unsafe and does not solve the problem.

"The people come to us and find they are in a safe place," said Harriet McDonald. "Next thing is, they get fed. Then they're telling us, 'Hey, I can be more than I am.'"

Participants forgo all public assistance except Medicaid when they join the program for a stay of nine to 18 months. In exchange, they receive medical care, counseling, regular drug testing and free housing in one of three facilities: the Peter Jay Sharp Center, which boasts computer labs, classrooms, and a high-tech front-door security system; a 200-bed residence in Harlem and a 70-bed building in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant.

After graduating, participants receive job placement and housing assistance. About 67 percent are still working one year after leaving the program.

"Our goal is to end homelessness for all people who come into our program," McDonald says.

The Doe Fund is not without its detractors.

Some homeless advocates say the $180 million, 22-year contract awarded to the organization by the former Giuliani administration could be better spent.

"For that money, the city could have provided permanent housing with support services," says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless. "It's an enormously expensive temporary solution when they could have put that money toward a permanent solution."

McDonald calls that kind of criticism a "tired old argument."

"That's what they've been saying for the last 20 years, but it ignores providing for the individual what they need today," said McDonald.

Linda Gibbs, commissioner of the city's Homeless Services Department, defends the program, calling it an important investment "for contributing to the lives of people that society has turned its back on."

She says the city currently has 38,500 homeless people, and Ready, Willing & Able is helping to reduce the numbers by giving the homeless a chance to get back on their feet -- people like Calvin Lipford.

Lipford, 48, came to the Sharpe Center two months ago from a city shelter, where he said, "A guy could be walking around with a needle in his arm, another guy could be smoking crack. I would pay people to watch my locker when I wasn't there."

At Ready, Willing & Able, he said, "I've seen how people have changed. "I see people looking good."

For William Williamson, the positive effects of the program have been with him since 1999, when he graduated from it.

"They gave me a shot to work," said Williamson, 44, who turned a life of drugs into one where he now works as a porter for a Manhattan real estate and management company.

Ready, Willing & Able, he said, gave him a chance to "show that I'm ready to go back to work and do what I have to do every day."

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