“Ready, Willing, And Able” – The Doe Fund Provides Work, and Hope, for the Homeless

NEW YORK– “I didn’t know what I was pushing the bucket toward,” said Nazarene Griffin. “But I knew what I was pushing it away from.”

Griffin said he pushed his janitorial bucket away from a life of crime, violence, even death. A former heroin and cocaine dealer and addict, Griffin told a gathering of fellow men from disadvantaged backgrounds about hitting rock bottom crouched under a car evading police. He spoke of his previous life selling drugs to wealthy clients who flew him around the world in a lavish lifestyle. But when they stopped buying, Griffin said, he turned to armed robbery to fuel his addiction.

Nazerine Griffin

Nazerine Griffin

Griffin turned his life around through an employment training and placement program called “Ready, Willing & Able” sponsored by The Doe Fund. He did it by starting out as a street cleaner in 1995, eventually rising to become a program director for the Fund.

“The bucket used to talk to me,” Griffin joked at a gathering to celebrate the Fund’s work. “I pushed the bucket to the good life. And because I chose the good life, my kids and grand-children and their children can choose the good life, too.”

From its Harlem headquarters, the Fund serves some 1,000 men, targeting the homeless and formerly incarcerated. Dressed in bright blue uniforms, known as the “men in blue,” Doe Fund workers clean more than 150 miles of New York streets each day.

“I used to think it was corny to go to work from 9 to 5,” Griffin said in an earlier online Doe interview. “I ridiculed my father because I thought he lived such a boring life. That’s what I was running away from. By the end of my [drug dealing] run, all I wanted was to go to work.”

Under the mission to “Provide the homeless with a hand up, not a handout,” The Doe Fund offers a 9 to 12 month transitional work program, including housing and three daily meals. Graduates receive guidance to maintain sobriety, full-time employment, and housing. Their orientation includes random drug testing twice a week, in-house work assignments, parenting workshops, and computer skills instruction.

“This is what God wants for us, is to work … Nothing makes us more human and more fully alive than being able to help everybody else.”

“All that stands between a man as he is and the man he wants to be is the choices he makes and the work he does to get there,” Griffin said at the event, a room packed with a sea of “men in blue.” “All you have to do is just keep on pushing.”

Data shows work is the primary cure to breaking the “War on Poverty” and one of the four vital ingredients to happiness, according to data analyzed by social scientist and AEI president Arthur Brooks. The other three are friendships, family and faith. Speaking to the Doe Fund workers, Brooks touched on all four, channeling his Catholic background.

“This is what God wants for us, is to work,” Brooks said. “Nothing makes us more human and more fully alive than being able to help everybody else.”

Welfare reform advocates are concerned by the Obama administration’s efforts to remove work requirements from the national welfare system. Work requirements were key in the landmark welfare reform of 1996 that lifted millions of families out of poverty.

“Politicians talk about dead end jobs. That’s a problem isn’t it, when they say it’s ‘dead end’?” Brooks said. “There is equal dignity in every kind of work. Everybody is part of our society…They don’t understand ‘dead end jobs.’”

Brooks cited research showing welfare recipients were less happy than workers who received the same amount of income through work. He congratulated the “men in blue” for rebuilding their lives.

The “men in blue” begin working 30 hours per week, and in the evenings they attend classes for life skills, financial management, pre-GED and GED, computer skills, and occupational training. They also receive training in conflict resolution, interpersonal relationships, resume preparation, and job search and interview skills.

“This is a room full of the successes of choices,” said Doe Fund founder George McDonald, who administers the program with his wife, Harriet. George praised the men for lifting themselves above “soul-crushing violence” to rehabilitation. “Each of you chose to change your life and get to work. Because of this achievement, people look to you. Mark my words tonight, because one day the entire country will look to you. It’s not about where we come from, it’s what we do with what we are.”

“What I learned was that my work had value,” Green said. “And nothing was going to take that value away unless I let it.”

Devon Green, age 23, a Ready, Willing & Able trainee, said he grew up in foster care after his father got incarcerated while Green was an infant and his mother died of AIDS when Green was six. He fell into the wrong crowd and was locked up in the Rikers Island juvenile detention wing.

“I knew I had to make a choice,” he said. “Was this my life, or was I, Devon, going to do something more? What I needed was an opportunity, and that’s what The Doe Fund gave me.”

Green completed Doe Fund training and was placed with Mt. Sinai Hospital, where he was just named “Employee of the Month.” He’s also just graduated from a local college.

“What I learned was that my work had value,” Green said. “And nothing was going to take that value away unless I let it.”