By James DeWeese
Since last year, four employees of the DOE Fund, a non-profit that helps homeless men move off the streets by providing transitional housing and stable jobs, have been pushing trash bins and brooms up and down a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue from 79th to 104th streets to tackle the area's litter problems.On Friday, state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) presented the DOE fund with a $25,000 check to expand the successful program to bustling blocks along 37th Avenue and 37th Road between 73rd and 77th streets, as well as 74th and 73rd streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues.Shopkeepers and merchants in the commercial corridor that draws visitors from across the borough and the tri-state area, welcomed the crew as a way to make up for what they called deficient city sanitation services. But for George McDonald, president and founder of the DOE Fund and its Ready, Willing and Able program, it's about a lot more than that.”Our primary mission, even though we're really good at it is not to clean up the streets,” McDonald said. The non-profit's aim, he said, is to serve as a bridge to a better life through housing, training, work and substance-abuse counseling programs that last anywhere from six to 18 months.”It just feels great to be back in a safe environment,” said Lorenz Strachan, 38, a member of the Jackson Heights clean-up crew. “This time last year I was just sleeping on the streets. I didn't care. So everything has changed.”Strachan and his cohorts, Lyndon Hernandez, 38, and Hector Rios, 40, are just three of the 15 men the DOE Fund has at work in Queens in Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst, Woodside, Kew Gardens and the Rockaways. They're earning $6.25 an hour, saving for their futures and garnering the praise of grateful business owners. And with the support of the DOE Fund's Ready, Willing and Able program and a lot of personal determination, the three said they're anxious to carve out a new life for themselves.But, it's not always so easy.Hernandez left the program in 2000. “I thought I had it, but I went and I left,” said Hernandez, who's been back in the program for a month now. So far, so good, he said. “I took so much from the community, but I'm happy to be giving it back to them.”Rios was a staff member in 1998. Now, he has been back in the program since December.Strachan, also a graduate, is back in the program after a brief relapse into his “old habits – drinking and drugs,” he said.Despite the bumps, Ready, Willing and Able, which has 670 beds in New York and a presence in Philadelphia, Jersey City and Washington, has proven successful. Across the city, the program has graduated more than 1,800 men.Craig Trotta, director of training and a Ready, Willing and Able graduate, said he knows a thing or two about the bumps in the road to recovery. “I came in there in 1997 after being homeless and living on the streets,” Trotta said. Before that, Trotta, 44, said he spent six or seven years in substance abuse treatment facilities, five years in jail and several months in the hospital after getting shot. Now he lives in Howard Beach and supervises more than 175 people across the city.The secret to the program's success is simple, he said. “The DOE Fund and the Ready, Willing and Able program don't beat you down more than you're already down,” Trotta said. “We treat them like men. We don't treat them like they're a number in the shelter system.”Meanwhile, 74th Street business owners, who petitioned Peralta to bring the DOE Fund to 74th Street after seeing its success on Roosevelt Avenue, are glad the crew has finally arrived. “One of the store owners just invited us to lunch,” Rios said.Peralta said city services, particularly sanitation, have not kept pace with the population explosion that led to the creation of new state Senate and Assembly districts in the tri-communities of Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in 2002. “Our community has been struggling for years to maintain these much needed services,” Peralta said. “This program will ensure a safe, clean and better life for our families, residents and small businesses.”Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.