AMID THE BLIZZARD OF CLAIMS AND counter-claims emanating from Washington on the effects of devolution and welfare reform, a small non-profit organization in New York City is applying an unfashionable insight to its work with homeless individuals. “We believe that work works,” says George McDonald, president and founder of The Doe Fund.
Long an advocate for the homeless, McDonald established The Doe Fund after an unidentified woman was found frozen to death on the streets of New York City in 1985. Like most homeless shelters, the Doe Fund provides food and a place to sleep. Unlike most shelters, the Fund requires its inductees to work to earn their keep. And, through a subsidiary program called Ready, Willing & Able, it puts homeless men and women to work, gives them a wage, and provides them with clean and safe lodging.
The catch? All participants must pay rent weekly to help defray the costs of their food and shelter, and are required to put at least $30 per week into a savings account (which is then matched, up to $1,000). When the “trainees” — Doe staff prefer this term to “the homeless” — graduate from the program, the money is used to help them secure permanent (non-subsidized) housing.
Who could possibly complain about a program that takes homeless people and turns them into formerly homeless people armed with a modicum of job experience? Well, for starters, the self-appointed representatives of the homeless. Advocacy groups such as the Coalition for the Homeless view Ready, Willing & Able’s discipline and structure as diabolical infringements upon the unconditional “right to housing” (the group’s executive director has been quoted dismissing the program as “indentured servitude,” but she refused to discuss the subject with Philanthropy). Groups like Coalition for the Homeless think the primary cause of homelessness is economic injustice and lack of homes. It follows, by their logic, that the solution to homelessness is more housing, preferably government housing. The Doe Fund’s McDonald thinks such attitudes couldn’t be more wrongheaded.
His program requires that each applicant be homeless and unemployed, exhibit a desire to improve his or her condition through possible employment, and be willing to sign a contract to abide by the program’s rules (which include random drug and alcohol screenings during the nine to 18 month duration of a trainee’s stay). “Most of our trainees have been addicts and imprisoned,” says McDonald, who sees the drug tests as one more way to separate trainees from the culture that bred their soon-to-be-former condition. “In order for one to recover, they must be in an environment that is conducive to recovery — which means that they must be separated from the populace using drugs and alcohol,” adds the Reverend Samuel McPherson Sr., the intense bespectacled director of the Doe Fund’s D.C. program.
After being admitted to the program, each trainee undergoes a 30-day “orientation” in residence, a sort of homeless boot camp. During this phase, trainees attend one-on-one and group counseling sessions designed to, as the Reverend McPherson puts it, “break them down and build them back up.” They are also put to work within their living facility, scrubbing the kitchen floor, cleaning bathrooms, painting walls, and making minor repairs. This work is designed to fulfill the “break[ing] them down” half of the Reverend McPherson’s equation, and is useful to the staff as a gauge of how the trainees will respond to a working environment.
After the orientation period, trainees enter the employment phase, usually for six to nine months, during which time they work five days a week. In the Washington, D.C. affiliate, the work involves cleaning the streets in residential and commercial areas of trash and leaves. In New York City, trainees perform municipal cleanup, work on construction sites, or help run a direct mail house established by The Doe Fund. After the work phase, trainees prepare for the all-important job search. The goal is for all graduates of the program to find private sector employment and unsubsidized housing. According to George McDonald, during this phase participants typically take an outside job and continue to live at the Ready, Willing & Able facility, although some continue to work for the program and find an outside apartment.
In New York City, the program works with about 300 trainees per year. In the D.C. branch, which opened in December 1995, approximately 100 trainees have entered the program. Of these, 36 have been removed for violations (13 due to drug or alcohol use, and 23 for other violations). New York City has seen about 500 trainees “graduate” (D.C.’s program has graduated 35). To graduate, trainees must be sober, hold full-time private sector employment, and live in unsubsidized housing with a lease in their own name. McPherson stresses the importance of the last requirement, explaining that unless the individual holds the lease, it’s too easy for their friend, family member, or spouse to put them out on the street, leaving them back where they started.
The program stresses private sector over government employment because, as McDonald says, “the public is looking for efficiency and we are trying to move [the trainees] toward independence.” Yet the Ready, Willing & Able program is itself heavily dependent on government funding, having received 100 percent of its startup funding in 1990 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development after being finalists in a national competition designed to highlight new and innovative programs targeting homelessness. Since then, however, federal support has declined to 65 percent, with the balance being made up by private foundation grants and donations from appreciative citizens and business groups. Recent contributions include a two-year grant of $60,000 from the New York Community Trust, in response to the program’s successes with employment training. The Washington, D.C.-based operation has been awarded a one-year grant of $20,000 by the Cafritz Foundation for general operating support, while Toyota Motor Corporate Services of North America recently donated a new Lexus to be raffled off at a New York fundraising dinner. Other private support has come from a more unexpected source. McPherson confirms that donations have started to come in from appreciative homeowners after the D.C. program began taking its cleaning crews into affluent neighborhoods such as Georgetown.
Homeless advocacy groups grouse that Ready, Willing & Able self-selects winners by imposing rules and weeding out the ones that don’t comply, but this is precisely what makes the program stand out from the rest. It is a tough program and the toughest enforcers are the trainees themselves, who don’t hesitate to let one another know if, for instance, they are not doing their fair share of the household chores. “We want to liberate them from welfare and dependency,” says McDonald, adding that “they don’t all make it, but they all come away with a better understanding of personal responsibility.”
By paying for their room and board and contributing to their savings accounts, trainees learn to be responsible with their earnings. In addition, at least some learn to be responsible citizens. “The critical part of our program . . . is that we give them a worldview and how they fit into the picture,” says Rev. McPherson, “I tell them, ‘When you were drinking and drugging, my taxes went up, because you stole. Now that you are not drinking and drugging, you have a responsibility to transmit this same information that has empowered you to someone else out there, so that they can understand the impact.’” Adds McPherson: “The uniqueness of this program is that work works. America was built on work and work gives a sense of self-esteem and self-worth.” George McDonald says that, “the sky’s the limit, if you have the proper attitude and tools.” He parts with what he calls his favorite story of Ready, Willing & Able. “One of our first trainees came to me and said, ‘There have always been two systems in my lifetime: free enterprise for you and welfare for us. I want to be part of the free enterprise system now.’ That’s the goal we are trying to reach.”
Steve Tappan is a staff writer for Philanthropy.