Working to give homeless people a new start Ready, Willing and Able provides a paying job, meals, and a place to sleep. The idea is to build self-sufficiency. Rebuilding lives by finding jobs for homeless

Posted: February 26, 2002

They are hard to miss, the new men in blue.

Each weekday morning along Kelly Drive, they pick up litter, trim branches, and rake leaves as thousands of commuters zip by on their way to work.

For the men in the blue uniforms, their work is cleaning the roadside.

Once, they were homeless and jobless. Now, through a program called Ready, Willing and Able, they have a place to stay and a purpose.

"This program has given me an opportunity to restore my life," said Barry Crosby, 40, a recovering drug addict who once slept in abandoned houses and crack dens.

These days he sleeps in a warm bed in a clean, four-story building near 12th and Bainbridge Streets in South Philadelphia.

The building is not just another shelter with, as program director Nazerine Griffin puts it, "three hots and a cot."

Participants in Ready, Willing and Able, who are randomly tested for drugs at least twice a week, work 35 hours a week and get paid - $5.50 an hour to start. In turn, they pay modest amounts for rent and food.

The program lasts up to 18 months, but the men don't graduate until they have secured a job and a lease.

Many had jobs before but were derailed by drugs or jail - and, eventually, homelessness. The program is designed to reinforce the rhythm and habit of work.

"It's really an employment-training program," said Robert Hess, the city's homelessness czar.

Ready, Willing and Able has received national recognition, having been featured on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. The program, launched in New York in 1989 by the Doe Fund Inc., boasts a 62 percent success rate of participants graduating to permanent jobs and stable housing.

"It's different from anything that's going on here," said Phyllis Ryan, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness and the program's key proponent in the city.

Ryan learned about the program in 1998. After a visit to the program's Harlem facility, she was convinced that Philadelphia needed Ready, Willing and Able. She said she was struck by the emphasis on work.

"It's about work, and the men are paid," she said.

The city gave the program a green light last spring and committed $1.78 million to get it up and running in the first year. The city expects to fund 90 percent of that amount in the second year and 80 percent in the third, with the program making up the difference through private contributions.

Ready, Willing and Able began accepting clients at a temporary facility in October and moved to 12th and Bainbridge last month. The renovated building, with 70 beds, had its grand opening Feb. 1.

The program has 40 participants, and officials hope to add five to 10 more each week until the facility is full.

For several months, the men in the all-blue outfits (supervisors wear red) have been working along Kelly Drive, providing the visibility sought by program officials. A work crew is also in place on Vine Street near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"We wanted people to see we were finally here," said Griffin, the program director.

Many of the staffers, including Griffin, are program graduates. As he puts it: "It's easier to lead a person out of a minefield if you've been in the minefield."

Griffin, 48, had good-paying union jobs as a young man in New York City. But he succumbed to drugs and a life of crime. By the early 1990s, he was living on the street and eating out of a trash bin behind a McDonald's.

"I was dying," he said.

While at a Salvation Army shelter in the mid-1990s, Griffin heard about Ready, Willing and Able.

After getting himself drug-free, he was accepted into the program.

Participants are required to save a portion of the money they earn from work; Griffin recalls saving enough to pay off about $1,200 in traffic tickets. He was then able to get his driver's license back.

Griffin called the program "a bridge back to life."

He graduated and began working as a staffer. Within a few years, he became a facility director. In October he was sent to Philadelphia to establish the 12th and Bainbridge facility.

"There seems to be a lot of men in Philadelphia who could take advantage of this program," he said.

Ready, Willing and Able has facilities in Brooklyn, Harlem and Jersey City. A Washington facility closed due to a dispute with local officials, but talks are under way to bring the program back.

While homelessness is increasing around the nation, Philadelphia's numbers have remained relatively steady. As of Feb. 13, there were 2,340 people in city shelters.

Officials hope Ready, Willing and Able will help bring that total down.

The goal is to help these men become "taxpaying, law-abiding citizens," said Hess, head of the city's homeless services.

"It's our hope," he said, "we won't see them again."

Robert Moran's e-mail address is bmoran@phillynews.com.

On the Web

Ready, Willing and Able's Web site is www.doe.org.

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