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December 26, 1993
Homeless Program Where Work Is Key

by Celia W. Dugger
In a homely, red-brick building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ready, Willing and Able achieves two goals unique among New York City programs for homeless men: It requires the men to work for $5 an hour and pay for room and board. And it covers 70 percent of its own costs.

The men say they are grateful for the chance to make something of themselves. "This program has turned me into a different kind of man," said Jacinto Collado, who used to live in his '77 blue Chevy Caprice and dealt drugs to support his cocaine habit. "Today, I'm taking home $112 a week and I'm a very happy man."

Yet despite the accolades of city and Federal officials, not to mention the homeless themselves, this four-year-old program for 66 men has not yet been copied in a city where more than 5,000 men sleep each night in city shelters.

Supporters say its stunted growth is a clear example of how a program whose efforts require the cooperation of several city agencies can fall between the bureaucratic cracks.

Inconvenient for the Bureaucracy
The program combines work, shelter and social services in a package that city officials say does not fit neatly into any one bureaucracy's mission. Duplicating it would probably require the city's new Department of Homeless Services, which provides shelter, to coordinate with other agencies that could provide work, for example, cleaning streets, sidewalks or parks.

"There was no natural home for this program in any agency, which is a shame because it's one of those programs everyone says they want," said Nancy Wackstein, who headed the Mayor's office on homelessness for the first half of Mr. Dinkins's term.

The program has certainly not lacked for recognition. Two years ago, the United States Interagency Council on the Homeless gave The Doe Fund, a nonprofit New York City group that created the program, one of its national awards for excellence. Mr. Dinkins appointed George McDonald, president of The Doe Fund, to his commission on homelessness, which held the program up as a model.

The Mayor, officiating at a ceremony to honor some of the men who participated in the program at 520 Gates Avenue, said it represented "the kind of creative and cost-effective solutions to homelessness that my administration is proud to advance." But the Dinkins administration never specifically asked nonprofit groups to propose programs like The Doe Fund's, combining work and shelter.

In the final year of the Mayor's term, however, the city did issue a general call for nonprofit groups to submit innovative ideas for homeless programs. Jeffrey Carples, acting Commissioner of the city's Department of Homeless Services, pointedly noted that Mr. McDonald did not respond.

Disappointed With City
But executives of nonprofit groups, including Mr. McDonald, say the city will have to take more initiative itself to put together creative ways of combining work with shelter for the homeless. After all, they say, it is the city, not they, who has the work that needs to be done. Mr. McDonald, who was an ardent supporter of Mr. Dinkins to the last, says he is nonetheless disappointed that the Dinkins administration, despite its good intentions, did not have the political will or the organizational competence to overcome the obstacles to expanding the model.

"I tried to get the city's attention focused on creating more work opportunities for homeless people" he said. "It's been the most frustrating experience of my life."

Mr. McDonald said he hopes that Mayor-elect Rudolph W. Giuliani will be more effective. But even with a commitment from the highest levels of city government, the program would have a rough time, officials say. If the city began employing hundreds, or even thousands, of homeless people, the concept would almost certainly run into strong opposition from unions fearful that the homeless would displace union workers.

"It could be a very sensitive and potentially explosive issue if it spread," said Stanley Hill, executive director of District Council 37, which represents 131,000 city employees.

A New Mayor, a New Push
Mr. Giuliani, who had criticized Mr. Dinkins for failing to carry out his own administration's policies on homelessness, promised during the campaign that he would move quickly to contract with nonprofit groups to run programs that would encourage the homeless to work. Mr. McDonald sent information about his program to Mr. Giuliani's transition team.

Richard Schwartz, one of Mr. Giuliani's senior advisers, said that the program rang a bell, but that he was unfamiliar with its workings. "I've gotten so much material," he said. And that worries Mr. McDonald.

"This government has not yet taken this novel, national model and run with it," he said. "Now I'm afraid that the new people are going to come in and while they're learning the government, we'll fall by the wayside."

The homeless men who live and work in Mr. McDonald's program say it has given them a way out of lives of addiction and crime, unlike the large barracks-style city shelters that only mired them more deeply in dependency on welfare and drugs. Almost all have abused drugs, mainly crack, and most have criminal histories.

'They Give You a Chance'
"It's a place where they give you a chance to make a change in your life," said Lonzie McKeithen, a 29-year-old recovering crack addict who has spent a year in the program.

Unanimously, the men say the life of a homeless addict or alcoholic is hard and lonely. Many were estranged from parents, wives and children. Leo Cherry, 48, became addicted to crack and despised himself for cheating his 11-year-old son.

"Instead of giving him money, I was always making excuses," said Mr. Cherry, as he stirred a huge pot of reconstituted mashed potatoes in the kitchen of Ready, Willing and Able. "That bothered me a lot."

The men enter the program by choice, some from shelters or drug treatment programs, others straight from a hard bench in a subway station. They must agree to work, to get off welfare, to submit to random urine tests and to save $30 of their pay each week toward the day when they leave the program. Those who do not abide by the rules are asked to leave. If they save $1,000, the program matches it when they get a job on the outside.

Food, Work, Reflection
The men sleep two to a room and share common bathrooms. Breakfast is at 7 and the men are out the door, loaded on vans that take them to their work sites, an hour later. Every evening, in the cheerful yellow dining room in the basement, they have dinner, and later can attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Most of the men interviewed said they go to three or four 1 1/2-hour meetings each week.

The net cost to taxpayers of the program is $

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