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January 26, 2013
El que m?s conoce a ?los hombres de azul?

by Silvina Sterin


Some of them chat in a hallway; others watch the television in silence, and in the kitchen, a group prepares dinner.  There are in total 400 men who live in this residence in East Williamsburg.  The number would intimidate others, but not Felipe Vargas, who manages to chat with everyone and ask how everything is going as he walks around. 

They talk openly about their work, their concerns, their handling of money.  He inspires confidence, although sometimes he scolds them a little for buying something they don’t need, like the most recent iPhone. “We try to impress upon them the value of saving”, said the Puerto Rican who has risen high in the organization, The Doe Fund, which oversees this and other temporary residences in Brooklyn, Harlem, and even Philadelphia.

He is friendly and likeable.  He knows how to listen. On top of it all, he’s well educated, prepared and carries with him more than one university degree.  But he doesn’t act superior; he treats everyone as his equal.  Of his 48 years, Felipe spent 20 in prison.  This experience, which he speaks about openly, helps him level with these men who know too well what it means to be deprived of freedom, to be  arrested multiple times, and to not have a roof over their heads in this city which can be extremely beautiful or extremely hostile.  “I think that it gives them some comfort to know my past, to know that I also fought those battles” he says. 

He was 15 when he was involved in a robbery that left two dead.  He didn’t pull the trigger, but his participation in the episode cost him time in the Spofford Juvenile Center in the Bronx, which he described as “like one of those jails that you see in the movies” and then later, more years in Eastern and in the famous Sing Sing.

“Studying was the only way that allowed me to transform myself, to free me a bit from the tremendous anguish and pain about being responsible for the loss of life.”  When Felipe was in prison he received degrees in psychology and sociology, and this great effort is what authorizes him to speak to these men.  “We say that Work Works.  Work transforms.  That’s it, it doesn’t fail.” 

Felipe came to The Doe Fund in 2006 and his first position was as the head of the organizations’ most visible and recognized program, Ready, Willing & Able, which allows the formerly incarcerated to feel like part of society and generate their own livelihoods by cleaning more than 150 miles of New York streets. 

“The world knows the Men in Blue”, he says in reference to the color of the uniforms worn by the veritable army of cleaners.   You might see them cleaning or drinking a coffee in Starbucks because it’s pretty common that people will give them a little drink or a bite at a restaurant to thank them for their hard work. "These are people who really value honest work because it’s not something they’ve always had.  Now many are, moreover, committed to rebuilding and cleaning after the destruction caused by Sandy; the gratitude of many families is having a wonderful effect on their self-esteem.  They feel truly valued and useful.”

The men receive $7.40 an hour for their work and also are given a place to live.  Both of these things, work and housing, are temporary and are the charge of Felipe, who now is the Executive Director of Programs and responsible for monitoring to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“The goal is that after twelve months they can be self sufficient” he said.  “For this they have to value their own efforts and focus on getting ahead without getting into trouble.  Our rules are clear: Each week, every man must save $50 of his salary, and two times per week submit to a urine test.  Most pass, and if not, we have access to drug treatment programs.  Only when clean can that person return to work.”

Felipe was born here in New York, in the South Bronx, and spent his adolescence in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.  Felipe knows the big apple like the palm of his hand; he walks every day, to visit the “men in blue” on their multiple cleaning routes, or while taking trips to the residences, which, in total provide shelter to nearly 700 individuals.

The slogan of the program closest to his heart, Ready, Willing & Able, references the question he continues to ask himself every day: “Am I Ready, Willing & Able to face this day and make the most of it?  His answer is always yes. 


Translation provided by The Doe Fund.  Read the original article here >>>

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