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April 9, 1991
This Program Rebuilds Both People and Housing

by Merle English
In 1986, Gregory Taylor lost his job with the New York Telephone Co. Unable to find new employment, the former Bedford-Stuyvesant resident became separated from his wife and three children and moved into a men's shelter in Harlem.

That was Taylor's life up to a year ago, a story repeated many times over in the city's shelters. But a new program has given him and other homeless men and women new hope.

He is one of the first 45 people who have completed Ready, Willing and Able, a nine-month program created from a partnership of government and private agencies and based in Bedford-Stuyvesant that trains single homeless men and women to renovate city-owned housing as permanent dwellings for homeless families.

About 70 persons are currently working in the continuing program.

The group, including Vietnam veterans and recovering drug addicts, has already helped to rehabilitate more than 1,500 apartments citywide.

Two weeks ago, Taylor was among 25 people in a graduating class who received certificates during a ceremony at which Mayor David N. Dinkins hailed them for overcoming adversity in their own lives and for showing "the rest of us how this city can and will overcome adversity.

"If these New Yorkers can stay the course, then surely all of us can follow their lead. We can stay the course too," Dinkins told nearly 200 well-wishers at the graduation.

The Doe Fund Inc., a nonprofit organization that runs a variety of programs for the homeless, operates Ready, Willing and Able. Trainees are recruited from the Greenpoint, Atlantic Avenue and Sumner Avenue shelters, the Harlem Men's Shelter, and the Brooklyn and Lexington Avenue Women's Shelters. They and a staff live at a single-room-occupancy building at 520 Gates Avenue which was renovated with a $1.9-million HPD loan and has served, since June, as headquarters for the program, which began in January, 1990.

Working in teams of five under the guidance of construction professionals, the trainees learn reading of blueprints, demolition, putting up sheetrock, painting and glazing. They also receive counseling and training to help develop proper work and peronal budgeting habits and other skills for independent living.

Trainees are paid $175 weekly from which they pay $50 per week for rent and $15 for communal meals. They also must save $1,000 which is matched by The Doe Fund. A $1.6-million HPD contract provides more than 70 percent of the program's budget.

The graduates are guaranteed jobs in the private sector at wages of $14,000 to $25,000 annually for full-time employment on completion of the program. They also get $1,000 once they start working, according to George McDonald, founder and president of The Doe Fund, which he named for an elderly homeless woman who died from exposure on Christmas Day, 1985.

McDonald's wife, Harriett Karr-McDonald, program director, spoke of the occasion as "a celebration of the dignity and worth of man." The graduates were proof, she said, of the possibilities "and hope for the thousands of motivated homeless men and women with few skills, little education and no prospects, who, with training and opportunity can also break the cycle of poverty and live productive, independent lives."

Jerry Belson of the Associated Builders and Owners of New York who helped raise more than $75,000 for the program, pledged to find jobs for the graduates. "I have no doubt you'll be the best people we ever hired," he told them.

Speaking for her peers, Eorlyn Weeks, a former day-care teacher's aide from Manhattan who went through the training, said, "I thought the road was going to be hard when I started, but this is the easiest I've walked for a long time. People like the McDonalds helped us to help ourselves. I have some money saved and an apartment of my own. Thank you for the doors you have opened in this program."

Other graduates spoke of their gratitude in having had an opportunity to turn their lives around.

Taylor said he was looking forward to a reunion with his family. "The motivation is great," he said.

Carlos Camacho, a former Bronx resident, had the same objective. "I was homeless two and a half years and through Jehovah I'm here, I'm on my way. I'll be home soon, back with my family," he said.

"Life has gotten better," said Kenneth Riser, a recovering drug addict from Bedford-Stuyvesant who is married and the father of two. "I'm more responsible now."

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