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October 31, 2005
For the homeless, a clean sweep

Manhattan-based nonprofit organization gives those struggling an opportunity to work and improve their lives

by Jesse Greenspan

The sidewalk on 61st Street between Roosevelt and Woodside avenues in Queens was littered with cigarette butts, day-old newspapers, leaves, flyers and a dead mouse. Edward H., unfazed, sauntered over in his black shoes and bright blue uniform and began cleaning up the mess. A few minutes later, the block was completely devoid of trash, so he rolled his broom, dustpan and garbage pail down the street, under the No. 7 train, and resumed his sanitation duties.

Despite his propensity for sweeping, Edward is no ordinary city worker. Just a few months ago he didn't have a home or a job; now he is one of about 600 men employed in the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able program. The Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness, gives homeless people jobs, transitional housing, and access to social services such as career training and resume building to help them get their lives back together."Other than the Doe Fund I know of no other opportunity where they give you a complete makeover of your life," Edward said.

Though Ready, Willing & Able employees do everything from construction to culinary work, the largest program is the Community Improvement Project, or street cleaning. Five days a week for eight hours a day, more than 200 men sweep up garbage, empty trash bins, shovel snow and wipe away graffiti along more than 150 miles of city streets. Most of those streets are in Manhattan, but the program has expanded to include the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City and even Philadelphia.

"The public really appreciates what they do, and some of these guys have never had a person say a kind thing to them in their lives," said Doe Fund president George McDonald. "They're out there happy and smiling and doing hard work, and the community is happy that the guys who used to be sleeping in their doorway are now sweeping their doorway."

Queens Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside), who recently allocated $95,000 to bring the Doe Fund to Woodside and Sunnyside for a third straight year, agreed that the workers had improved the quality of life in the neighborhood. "When you're a small business owner and you're trying to stay afloat, you shouldn't have to be out there six times a week sweeping sidewalks," he said, adding: "Roosevelt Avenue in Queens ought to be as clean as Park Avenue in Manhattan."

McDonald first created the Ready, Willing & Able program in 1990, a few years after his last unsuccessful run for Congress on a platform of ending homelessness. His organization started out with one building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, housing 45 men. Now, the Doe Fund has a number of shelters for 800 men (there are no women in the program), complete with televisions, computers and Internet access.

Street cleaning began in 1995 on East 86th Street in Manhattan at a time when the Doe Fund faced bankruptcy. Since then, McDonald has expanded his base of support from 60 to 38,000 donors, and there are now more requests for workers than he is able to fill. Participants in the program officially graduate by working nine months, staying drug free - they are tested twice a week - and then finding a job and permanent housing before the year is out.

"Everyone who works here doesn't have larceny in their heart," said Ronald H., who started in the Ready, Willing & Able program two years ago after becoming heavily involved with drugs and spending time in prison. He now works as a supervisor in Queens with a salary and benefits, and he also has his own apartment and bank account. "My reason for staying at the Doe Fund is to give back and make sure that these guys know that as bad as it gets, there's still hope," Ronald said.

Edward H., who has a degree in computer science, worked in the Navy for six years. Upon leaving in 2003, however, he began drinking heavily and using drugs. "Crack cocaine took me down very, very quickly," he said. After spending time in Washington, D.C., Florida and New Orleans, Edward moved to New York having lost his home and his job. This summer he began cleaning streets for the Doe Fund, and he said he hopes to soon become a supervisor. He also said he would like to get back into computer science and would one day like to write a book. "This is not my career sweeping the street," he said. "Basically, I'm trying to straighten my life out.".

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