Training the Homeless to Do for Themselves

  • Prosperity
  • 1985

In the early 1980s when New York City was at an economic and social nadir, winter cold killed several homeless people. In response, donors launched the Doe Fund, named for one of the women who froze to death, known only as “Mama Doe.” A single principle served as its lodestar: the homeless have “the potential to be contributing members of society.”

The fund employs one simple means—work—to help the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, and other strugglers achieve self-sufficiency. Not just the money but the daily structure and sense of accomplishment that work provides can have magical effects that extend far beyond the help offered by free welfare services. The Doe Fund prepares residents of its shelters for outside employment by first requiring that they work in its own enterprises. For instance, some prepare meals and learn cooking skills at the fund’s dormitories around the city. Its most famous in-house business is a contract to clean over 150 miles of New York streets.

The in-house businesses employing the homeless yield multiple benefits: The lives of the workers become much more orderly. Neighborhoods are cleaned up. And the nonprofit gains a steady revenue stream ($25 million in 2014) to pay for its services.

Other support comes from individuals and foundations who share the nonprofit’s philosophy that “work works,” and that special training for ex-offenders, substance abusers, school dropouts, and those suffering from mental or physical disabilities is crucial if the “demoralizing burden” of chronic unemployment is to be overcome. The fund’s “men in blue” are overwhelmingly minorities, nearly three quarters of them have a criminal record, and 85 percent have been substance abusers. Yet more than 60 percent of those who enter Doe’s “Ready, Willing & Able” training program graduate into independent life and employment. A 2010 Harvard study found ex-cons who graduated from the program were 60 percent less likely to have a felony conviction three years after leaving prison.

The Doe Fund has expanded into multiple locations, programs, and businesses, with an annual budget of $48 million in 2014. One graduate, a multiple felon now pursuing a college degree, highlights the fund’s guiding principle: “This was the first time that I was told what I could do for myself.”

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