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December 20, 1990
They're Homeless -- Not Helpless

by Dennis Duggan
At noon yesterday four men and a woman slapped fresh paint on the walls of a newly vacated apartment in a city-owned walkup at 723 Hancock St. in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It's not in a castle and not on Park Avenue, but for the homeless family who will move soon from a welfare hotel into this space, it will be something like a ticket out of hell.

The cleanup crew are themselves recent escapees from the ever-swelling ranks of the homeless, part of a singular program called Ready, Willing and Able that celebrates its first birthday in a few days.

It is the only program of its kind in the entire country -- using the homeless to provide housing for the homeless, a deliciously simple concept that has already drawn praise from advocates and city officials.

Its creator is George McDonald, an advocate for the homeless who believes that if you give men and women, even those we now call The Homeless, a job and self-esteem they will be able to lift themselves from the mire of the streets. "It's about time that someone gave the homeless real jobs, not jobs selling scab newspapers," said Mary Brosnahan, director of the Coalition for the Homeless. She was referring to the use of homeless to hawk the strikebound Daily News.

The housing program was started in January under the sponsorship of The Doe Fund, a nonprofit group headed by McDonald and the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The program is named after the elderly woman called Mama Doe who died on a bench in Grand Central Terminal on Christmas Day five years ago.

This is early in the second decade of the homeless. It was in 1979 that a young lawyer named Robert Hayes brought suit against the city in the name of a homeless man named Robert Callahan. The case established the rights of the homeless to shelter.

The numbers of homeless are at an all-time high. According to Peter P. Smith, head of the Partnership for the Homeless, between 90,000 and 100,000 people are considered homeless in the city. Already there are reports that the city will fall 1,000 or more beds behind this winter.

So the thought that something important is happening in the neglected streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant -- something that may provide a vision of the future -- is exciting, not only to the once-homeless 70 men and women in McDonald's program, but also to those who have sought a better life for the homeless than the cavernous armories or bug-infested welfare hotels.

"They got me out of the shelter and they gave me self-esteem," said Larry Rhodes, 29, showing off his neatly furnished room in the program's residence and headquarters building on Gates Avenue at Tompkins Avenue.

That building, which once housed the Industrial Home for the Blind, was bought and rebuilt by McDonald and has been open since June.

Rhodes, who was once an Army Ranger but who turned to drugs and lived in Camp LaGuardia, a homeless shelter in Rockland County, says his job there "has given me a second chance."

"The way I see it this is a transition -- from the shelter to here to my own place. For the first time in a long time, I am earning my own keep and it is important to me and the people here, more important than I could ever explain."

The participants in the program are paid $5 to $6 hourly during a nine-month-long tour. Every week $30 is taken from their pay and put into a savings account. They pay $50 a week for their room and board.

At the end of nine months, The Doe Fund matches the $1,000 saved, which provides a $2,000 nest egg with which participants are expected to obtain their own apartments.

Better, they are also guaranteed jobs by the real estate and construction companies that sit on the board of The Doe Fund. The companies pay around $25,000 yearly for work in their firms.

There are rules in the temporary housing building. They include random drug testing and 11 p.m. curfews. Those who are dropped from the program are sent to drug rehabilitation and brought back into the program if they can pass muster.

This type of housing program is only available because the city owns hundreds of thousands of apartments.

"They are our biggest and only customer," explains McDonald, showing a scope sheet to a visitor. This sheet outlines work to be done in buildings in three boroughs by the nine five-person construction crews at Ready, Willing and Able. The City then pays for the work done.

McDonald said he designed the program to show that many of the homeless living in shelters -- perhaps as many as a third -- are capable of living on their own if they get training and support.

"Here is where we train them to do construction work inside the apartments," he said yesterday at the Gates Avenue facility. "We've done over 1,000 apartments already."

But McDonald has mainly provided hope. In an office at City Hall yesterday, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone acknowledged McDonald's contribution:

"In the past we never really listened to people like McDonald and other homeless advocates. The last administration thought that if you provided housing for the homeless they'd come pouring into the city from all over. There was a lot of hostility towards them.

"But we take McDonald and others like him seriously now. Our dream is to get rid of those barrack-like shelters and to give the homeless humane places to live where they can get medical and other treatment.

"What we have learned is that if you treat the homeless humanely you will help them make the trip back from the streets quicker, and in the long run it will be cheaper for the city as well."

"Look at them," a beaming McDonald said yesterday, pointing to some of the formerly homeless learning the tools of a new trade. "A few days ago they were living on cots in armories. Now they have their own room and a job and the best thing of all -- a future."

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