By Daniel Massey
Ana Walsh, the owner of Ana’s Place on Queens Boulevard, needed only one word to describe what the busy streets surrounding her Rego Park restaurant looked like eight months ago.
“Disaster!” she said. “I used to have my guys out sweeping three times a day and it wouldn’t help.”
That was before state Sen. Daniel Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) and local merchants teamed up with the non-profit Doe Fund to bring homeless people like Lamar Smith in to clean the heavily used commercial area.
Smith, an ex-felon who was referred to the Doe Fund by a counselor at the Ward’s Island homeless shelter, is one of two homeless men currently assigned to cleaning duties in Rego Park.
The men receive counseling and life skills training and earn up to $6.50 an hour for sweeping the streets and emptying garbage cans. They pay rent to live in a Harlem shelter renovated by the Doe Fund.
Smith said the fund has transformed his life.
“I was out on parole. I had no place to go, no plan,” he said. “The job gives me pride. It’s great to hear the reaction from the people.”
Walsh’s voice is one of those cheering for Smith. “Now it’s just wonderful,” she said. “Everything is so spotless.”
But budget cuts since the Sept. 11 attacks have threatened to turn the streets back over to the rats, which Hevesi said used to be among the chief tenants of the business district.
“I had money allocated to fund this program, but after Sept. 11, it’s gone, he said.
The state senator said he was able to secure $7,000 for the Rego Park cleanup, which costs $45,000 a year for two full-time employees. State Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) has pledged $10,000.
While Hevesi said he expected other public officials, like newly elected Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills) to support the program, he is hoping the balance of funds needed to run the clean-up operation can be raised from area merchants. The ultimate goal, he said, is for the program to be entirely funded through private donations.
Toward that end, Rego Park merchants last week joined Hevesi, Cohen, Katz and representatives of U.S. Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) and Nita Lowey (D-Rego Park) at a fund-raiser at Ben’s Best, a Queens Boulevard kosher delicatessen.
Hevesi said business owners should support the Doe Fund because it saves them money in the long run. “It brings shoppers in and keeps them from getting tickets from the Sanitation Department,” he said.
Sanitation enforcement officials repeatedly ticketed Ana’s Place prior to the arrival of Doe Fund workers, Walsh said. Now, instead of paying fines, she wrote a $400 check to the Doe Fund. A total of $3,500 was collected amid a spread of corned beef sandwiches and matzo ball soup at Ben’s Best.
The deli’s owner, Jay Parker, said local merchants are 100 percent committed to saving the Doe Fund. “They are so impressed with the way the streets look,” he said.
Cohen, who noted sanitation gripes represented more than half of the constituent complaints he received in his first year in office, credited Doe Fund workers with significantly cleaning up the community.
“If someone would have told me it was going to be clean — not a little clean but spotlessly clean — I would have said the person was on drugs,” he said. “I thought it was out of control, but I was wrong.”
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at [email protected] or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.