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January 7, 2007
Zapping Homelessness

Jobs at a charity's pest-control company give downtrodden men the skills to turn their lives around

by Noelle Burton

Few new employees at the Pest At Rest extermination company know much about ridding homes of insects, rodents, or other creatures when they start. But most have experience of another kind that keeps them motivated: first-hand knowledge of what it's like to be homeless. And they know the difficulty of breaking into a profession that pays a good wage.

To provide a career path for such men, the Doe Fund, a New York nonprofit organization, opened Pest At Rest three years ago. Eventually the organization hopes the business will become a new source of money for its many projects, such as the Ready, Willing, and Able program that offers housing and meals to formerly homeless men while providing them with job training.

Isabel McDevitt, who developed the idea for the pest business, says she sought an industry that offered opportunites for job advancement, involved a trade that men could become licensed in, and was relatively forgiving of those with a criminal background.

After doing some research, Ms. McDevitt settled on pest control because of its high wages and the high demand for new technicians.

"It's a job that is never going to go away in New York City," she says.

Getting Rid of Dead Rats

The extermination business has not always been an easy sell to the charity's clients, however.

Ernest Burton says he enrolled in the company's training program last year after other attempts to find a good job failed. Having just gotten out of prison after serving two and a half years for illegal possession of a weapon, Mr. Burton found few employers willing to make him an offer.

On his first day in training for the Pest At Rest job, Mr. Burton was assigned the task of checking a rat box that the company had previously baited with poison. As he opened the trap, a rat came charging out at him.

The experience made him ask, "Is this really something that I really want to do?" Mr. Burton says. "But the laugh that me and my coworkers had was so funny, I was like, Yeah, I could do this."

These days, Mr. Burton is one of the business's many success stories.

More than 50 trainees have moved into full-time jobs  earning $10-per-hour and up  after leaving the company. And three of those men have struck out on their own as exterminators.

To get the venture going, the Robin Hood Foundation, in New York, awarded the Doe Fund a grant of $75,000, and it has since made two additional grants of that amount.

Ms. McDevitt recruited Edward J. Sheehan, a pest-control veteran who had a reputation for being a tough taskmaster (he uses an even stronger term), to help establish the company.

As vice president of operations, Mr. Sheehan teaches a 30-hour state-licensing course that covers how to calculate square footage, handle chemicals and equipment safely, and even dress and act professionally on the job. One day each week he takes the men out to job sites.

Ultimately those who meet certain academic standards take the state exam to become certified technicians. Upon passing, each participant is reimbursed the $275 in test fees by the Doe Fund.

Mr. Sheehan, who comes across as a gruffer version of the sportscaster Dick Vitale, says he has had to adjust to the idea of putting the business aspect of his work on the back burner, behind the goal of job training.

Initially, he says, he was hesitant to get involved with the charity venture, but then he recalled the advice he received from a longtime customer of his, an older man who was was dying of cancer. The man told him to remember to give something back from all he had learned.

Mr. Sheehan says that while he earns a salary for his work with Pest At Rest, the job has little to do with the money: "This time is for passing it on."

$200,000 in Earnings

The company generated $200,000 last year in revenue, and expects to turn a profit in 2007 and start to help finance other efforts of the Doe Fund, he says. Some of the pest company's clients include numerous other nonprofit organizations in New York, which are glad to support a company with a charitable mission.

Mr. Sheehan says his success rate is around 90 percent, and that former Pest At Rest employees sometimes even call him up for financial advice.

"They ask, 'What do I do with all this money?'" he says. "I say, a bank is a good thing, CD's, get a little more and we'll hook you up with the stock market. They have 401(k)'s. Once they got a chance to prove themselves, a lot of them took off in the right direction."

Men who want to work for Pest At Rest and train under Mr. Sheehan initially sign on with the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing, and Able program to learn general job skills. Most -- about 80 percent -- move on to outside jobs, but about 20 percent are hired for positions within one of the charity's own businesses.

The most well-known venture is a street-cleaning service started in 1995, which has earned contracts to clean parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

That operation has a $10-million annual budget and recoups about $4-million of that through its work, relying on donations to support the rest of its budget.

Last month the charity opened a new business in which workers remove cooking-oil waste from city restaurants and work with a biodiesel producer to turn it into fuel.

A Mentor

Leslie Perez credits the Doe Fund with offering him a route to a better life. He was homeless after his parents died, and ended up in prison for burglary before being released in late 2004.

Mr. Perez enrolled in the Pest At Rest training program, was certified as a technician and later as a commercial applicator, and has been training men in the program for the past six months. Along the way, he saved his money and got his own apartment.

"Once I was trained, I took it upon myself to take it to the next level," Mr. Perez says.

He also credits his boss, Mr. Sheehan, for his success.

"When he teaches you, he expects you to do it his way because he has a lot of experience," Mr. Perez says.

Both Mr. Perez and Mr. Burton, his friend and coworker, aspire to upgrade their certifications so they can inspect hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. Ultimately they hope to start their own pest-control companies.

Even now, Mr. Burton says, he feels like he has made it. And he has inspired his cousin to follow in his path by finishing the same course and passing his certification test as well.

"Believe it or not, it's like I'm a hero," Mr. Burton says of the reaction he gets these days from family and friends. "For me, coming where I came from, to change my life and now working 9 to 5 and be able to stand on my own feet, doing nothing illegal, they really look up to me."  

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