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April 25, 2008
Celebrating a return to a productive life

Ready, Willing and Able, which works to improve the lives of homeless people, staged a graduation for 44 of its successes.

by Andrew Maykuth
For years, Victor Scurry led a double life. As a substance-abuse counselor for the Department of Human Services, he was secretly addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol.

"I'd go into my office and smoke a pipe," Scurry, 51, said last night. "Then I would go before a group of people, telling them how to stay clean. And I'm high as a kite. The hypocrisy was unbelievable."

Eventually, his world collapsed. He lost his job, got caught stealing, and became homeless. He took to sleeping in abandoned buildings in Germantown, just a few blocks from his family home, worried that his mother would catch sight of him.

Early last year, he entered the South Philadelphia shelter run by Ready, Willing and Able and enrolled in its program that aims to transform homeless men and women through a disciplined approach of work and sobriety.

Last night, Scurry was one of 44 graduates of the program who has reentered the workforce, each with a positive story.

While Scurry is unusual - he graduated from high school and college - last night's commencement represented perhaps the most remarkable transformation of his life.

"I like this new way of life," said Scurry, who now works for the RWA program as a counselor and is planning on getting married. "There's no reason to turn back."

Mayor Nutter, who has made reintegration of homeless and ex-offenders a critical part of his plan to fight crime and break the cycle of poverty, delivered the commencement address last night before about 250 people at the New Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia.

"Many of have come from some pretty dark places to now be on this bright stage," said Nutter. "You know the criminal justice system, addiction, too much about our shelter system halfway houses... But tonight, you stand here strong, clean, sober, with jobs and homes."

Ready, Willing and Able accommodates 70 people at its shelter, most of whom start out working on its blue-uniformed work crews cleaning up rubbish on city streets and in Fairmount Park.

The participants are randomly tested for drugs twice a week, and required to save some of their earnings in order to learn the discipline of budgeting.

The program receives a $1.6 million grant from the city's Office of Supportive Housing, which covers about two-thirds of its $2.4 million operating budget. The program represents only a small portion of the 3,500 homeless people and families that the city houses each night at a cost of about $97 million a year.

Nutter praised the program as a successful model. "This issue of self-esteem and dignity around the issue of work and self-worth is an important component to keeping people off the street," he said.

George McDonald - the founder of the Doe Fund Inc. in New York, who started the Philadelphia program in 2001 - spoke last night about how the graduates were now part of a family.

"If you find yourself in trouble, and it's never far away, whatever the reason may be, we want to you to come back to us," he told the graduates.

Afterward, McDonald lauded the success of his model's work requirements.

He said that only 5 percent of the graduates of the New York program were arrested in the first year after reentering the workforce.

"We're about getting on the economic ladder of the free enterprise system, this great social program called America," he said.

But despite the program's low recidivism rate, not everyone succeeds overcoming powerful addictions.

Sixty-two percent of the people who enter the Philadelphia program complete it successfully.

And of the 250 graduates in the program's seven years, one-third succumbed to the allure of drugs within six months, said Kate Houstoun, RWA's community affairs coordinator.

Juan Cruz Jr., 44, the RWA class valedictorian, recalled how close he came to returning to a life of crime upon his release from prison after serving a sentence for armed robbery.

"When I walked into this program a year ago, I was done," said Cruz, who has spent nearly three decades behind bars.

"I was five minutes from picking up a gun," he said.

He now works for a janitorial firm.

Cruz said he also recognized that his 20-year-old son, Juan Cruz 3d, had begun go astray in the same way that led him to prison. So he persuaded his son to join RWA.

Yesterday, the son sat in the front row of the auditorium as his father delivered a colorful address and then was embraced by the mayor of Philadelphia.

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