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September 19, 1997

OP-ED; Pg. A19

by Jonetta Rose Barras
I'm walking up Columbia Road NW when I notice there isn't any trash in front of the Safeway; no chicken bones, bent straws, or smashed French fries anchor the Popeye's. Something's wrong; I look to see if the Department of Public Works switched employees; the regular guy - nice fellow - takes a non-aggressive approach to the job. He's more a social animal, gossiping with the shopkeepers and vendors. I am puzzled.

The next day I come back, convinced that the place will be a wreck, especially since hundreds of people flock to the neighborhood. The sidewalks are nearly immaculate, again. Who is the magician, I wonder.

Finally, outside the post office on 18th street, dressed in a blue jump suit, blue hat, and ragged smile is Ronald Keys. He pauses from his robust broom pushing. Are you the person to thank for the clean streets and sidewalks? "Yes ma'am." Who are you with? He writes the telephone number, address and director's name on my pad.

Later, I take the 90 bus to 5th Street and Florida Avenue NW. Inside a less than glamorous red row house, I think I'm going to hear the story about a group that simply connected with a Business Improvement District (BID) association. The city approved BIDs, imitating programs in New York and Philadelphia: Business owners organize and agree to pay a small surcharge, which helps finance enhanced street cleaning and security.

But this is not a BID story. It is the tale of one man's generosity, vision and faith sculpted into opportunities for hundreds of misdirected and scarred individuals; the tale of quiet miracles unfolding in the District each day, about which few of us know. It is an inspired view for those who have lost hope and entry for a city struggling to meet the primary mandate of welfare reform - meaningful employment for recipients.

Come, judge for yourself.

The Rev. Samuel McPherson Sr., a gregarious, balding, 56-year-old African American with an infectious enthusiasm, and Harry Cole, a tall, imposing but stoic forty-something black man, greet me in the narrow reception area at 457 Florida Ave. NW. They offer me an insider's view of The Doe Fund, Inc.

George McDonald had been feeding a homeless woman in New York and lost touch with her; he searched everywhere before finally travelling to the city morgue. She was there - listed as a Jane Doe. He created the organization in her honor.

Since 1980 the Doe Fund, Inc. has provided cash assistance, food, clothing, housing and medicine to the homeless. Understanding that "it is better to teach a man to fish," Mr. McDonald created in 1990 the Ready Willing & Able construction and training program. After winning in 1995 a $1 million HUD Innovation grant, he expanded to the District, accepting men and women who lived on the street or in shelters and were former substance abusers. Participants in the 18-month program must apply and, among other things, prove they have been drug and alcohol free 30 days prior to being accepted. They receive $5.50 per hour to work in the program, but then pay the organization $65 per week rent and board. They deposit a mandated minimum $30 each week in the bank; at graduation, the company matches up to $1,000 of each person's savings. The financial arrangements promote stability, independence and productivity, while telegraphing an essential message: There are no free rides. The men and women in the Ready Willing & Able program work hard.

Initially, participants were sent to the Georgetown and K Street areas, but now the program has expanded. "They're outstanding; we are bowled over by the success we've had," raves Pat Patrick, president of the Adams Morgan Business and professional Association and a 26-year resident of the community. "They've done so well that you could eat off the sidewalk."

Mr. Patrick, whose association decided against a BID, says his group contracted with Ready Willing & Able for five days a week, four hours each day. Graffiti removal, alley cleaning and snow removal are being added to their contractual duties. The association pays, aided by the Latino Economic Development Corporation, $4,000 over a three-month period for the guys in blue.

"It's a steal." "Our motto is, 'Work, Works,' " says Mr. McPherson. "If you have an idle mind, you have no sense of self worth; if you have no self worth, you have nothing to look forward to."

Messrs. McPherson and Cole once worked at the D.C.-funded Blair Shelter, and grew tired of seeing men come in at 7 p.m., evicted at 7 a.m, without being given the tools to change their lives. "There was some case management; but the system wasn't designed to do psycho-socio-economic examinations," says Mr. McPherson, who initially was skeptical about the Doe Fund.

But today he and the dozens of men and women who have or will graduate from Ready Willing & Able are its cheerleaders. Mr. Cole says the group has applied for the contract with the Downtown BID and the K Street BID; the organization also volunteers at Earth Day and Anacostia Day, instilling the spirit of volunteerism and community involvement in its participants.

The organization has been hunting for a larger space to expand its operation. Mr. McPherson called the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, hoping to tag an old school building; no response yet.

The group believes its model can be replicated for welfare recipients, but day care may be a problem. Still, it invites dialogue with the city.

Undoubtedly there is something to learn from Ready Willing & Able's tender but tough approach to healing wounded lives. "We insist that the men and women be responsible, respectable and restore all broken bridges - especially with their families," continues Mr. McPherson. "Some of the men tell me they never had a man to sit down and tell them about life; most of them didn't know their fathers. I tell them a real man is a man who is responsible to himself, his mate and society at large. "I don't accept the talk about what happened in slavery and what the white man did," adds Mr. McPherson. "None of that works here."

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