< Return To News Archive
September 5, 2006
Climbing through

Nazerine Griffin found healing at a men's shelter - now he runs it

by Josh Max
It's three steep flights of hard concrete stairs from the B train down to the Doe Fund's Harlem 1 shelter, symbolic of the distance some men must fall before they get back up again.

Nazerine Griffin was once one of those men. In 1996, barely into his 40s, he arrived at the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able program in Brooklyn as a "broken up, half a shell of a man" - no place to live, addicted to drugs, and at the bottom of his life. Today, he's program director of the 198-bed Harlem shelter, where men who are homeless, recently incarcerated or have drug or alcohol problems can get their lives back together, sleep in a safe, clean environment and earn money sweeping streets.

"We're gonna clean 150 square miles of New York today," says the 52-year-old Griffin, whose immaculate office is decorated with a wall-sized photo of a group of smiling men, brooms at the ready, wearing the program's signature blue uniforms.

Griffin himself is attired in a crisp button-down blue shirt, black slacks and polished black shoes. He's lean, with soft brown eyes, close-cropped gray hair, a matching mustache and pierces on both his ears. A diamond stud dots his left lobe, and a "Ciao Mama" tattoo adorns his right arm.

"When I first got here in 1996, this was a crack den," he says. "At the time, the homeless were being warehoused with no rehabilitation. You can see how we've turned it around. We keep it spotless so people can feel good about where they live. If you look, there are bright colors everywhere. There's hope here."

Each day, in shifts starting at 6 a.m. and ending at midnight, the shelter's residents fan out across Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, sweeping streets to earn room, board and about $6 an hour. Residents also collect over 1,200,000 bags of garbage per year.

"When we started the program," Griffin says, "People said, 'Man, you are never gonna get homeless people to show up for a job every day.' But they did, and here we are." Residents stay an average of a year before returning to society, and 52% return employed, drug-free and independently housed. The program is privately funded.

"I listen," says Griffin. "A lot of times we find no one has ever listened to these men in their lives - not when they were kids, not when they were teens, not when they came through the system - never. But we expect a lot of you. You have to give up drugs and you have to talk about your feelings. It goes against everything they know."

Unlike other shelters, nothing is beat up or broken down. The flavor is more shipshape dorm than flophouse.

Griffin walks down the hall to a small room where the facility performs drug tests. "We test the men twice a week," he says. "We have to. Some guys are so much in denial and so gifted at lying. At other facilities where the drug test is done off site, you have to wait a couple of days for the results. Here, we can tell within minutes."

A gargantuan machine resembling a reel-to-reel tape recorder whirs and spins. A slip of paper emerges from its top like a cash register receipt. Griffin examines it.

"Okay, as of right now, 10 a.m.," he says, "100% of the residents - 198 people - are 100% clean and sober."

But residents aren't the only ones taking drug tests. "The staff takes them, too. Part of the reason is we want people to learn by example. If residents see staff taking drug tests, they can't complain about taking them. One guy said to me after he'd been here awhile, 'I remember the time you was on line taking tests with us. I ain't never seen that.' And they know we're on their side."

Griffin's own tale of redemption is both harrowing and inspiring. "Unlike some others here, I had a family and a life, and I chose to turn my back on it," he says. "I was in college and I fell into the lifestyle, staying out all night, going to discos. Eventually drugs overtook me and consumed me. I went from being a college student to a parasite and a menace to society. When I smoked crack and became homeless and jobless, living on the streets and eating out of garbage cans, the only place I knew to go get help was a hospital. I kicked the drugs, got clean and wound up program director for the Doe Fund in Brooklyn first, then I got this job in 2003. I'm the first one to come all the way through the program that manages any of the facilities."

George McDonald, founder and president of the Doe Fund, says "Naz was the realization of a dream for me. I wanted someday for a graduate to be a director. He's the one who made it all the way through and did it. He's representative of what can be accomplished.

"People don't realize the talent some of these guys have," McDonald continues. "You look at a guy like Naz, and he's got a natural ability of a leader. He knows the difference between right and wrong and he doesn't ask anything of anyone [that] he doesn't do himself."

Griffin guides us into the learning center with its 13 computers. Seven residents are taking typing courses and working on r?sum?s.

"We don't guarantee they're gonna write a book," says Griffin. "But they'll be able to type out an application for Home Depot or Pathmark."

He points to a large flat-screen TV mounted on a wall in the adjacent library. "See this? It's been here for two years. In a regular shelter, it'd be gone in five minutes. But we work on establishing trust.

"Here, we have structure, we have rules. You have to give back to society. You've been taking your whole life. Want something? Go get it. Convicted felon? So what? What are you doing now? And they can't say, 'That's easy for you to say.' I know exactly what you've experienced because I've been there."

Graduate Anthony Hopkins, 52, has been working at John Doe for nine years. "I'm getting married Sept. 30, and Nazerine's my best man," he says. "Naz is one of my heroes. I was a dope fiend and homeless for over 30 years. I met him at a meeting, asked for his number and called him at about 5 a.m. He picked the phone up and he wasn't angry, he just said to meet him at 8 a.m. in Brooklyn. Naz is always giving; he's someone I'm real glad I got in my corner."

"I don't even consider this a job," says Griffin, who is single and has a girlfriend. "You have some disappointment when some people fail, but you also have the joy of them succeeding. It lets me keep doing what I do. I would do this for the rest of my life even if they came in and fired me tomorrow."

< Return To News Archive ^ back to top