The men in blue are back in Forest Hills.
As the Queens Chronicle first reported, the Doe Fund made its eagerly anticipated return to Central Queens last week, emptying trash bins and cleaning streets along the neighborhood’s busiest commercial district.
“Clean streets are good for business,” said Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, at an Austin Street news conference last Friday. “This vital shopping district is so necessary to our city’s economic development.”
The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing and Able program, which provides steady work and shelter for former homeless people looking to turn their lives around, was a mainstay on Austin Street, Continental and Ascan Avenues and parts of Queens Boulevard since October of 2000.
However, the non-profit program ended in May, when the voluntary contributions necessary to fund the $38,000-a-year initiative dried up.
“We had a lot of support for the program, but it was not enough,” said Joel Mandel of JSM Management, who chairs the Austin-Continental Merchants Association, which initially hired the Doe Fund.
Mandel, along with a number of area merchants, said that after the program disappeared, the differences in the community were obvious. “Businesses were getting Sanitation tickets. Merchants were getting complaints from customers.”
Mandel expressed hopeful optimism that the program, which now has a broader base of support, would be able to sustain itself this time around.
Much of that support can be linked to a number of Forest Hills legislators who helped restart the program with funds from their discretionary budget. City Councilwoman Melinda Katz came through with $5,000, while Assemblyman Michael Cohen secured as much from the state.
“We are thrilled that the guys in Ready, Willing and Able are going to be back in Forest Hills to keep our neighborhood looking spectacular,” Katz said. “People tell me all the time how much they appreciate the work that they do, and how good they feel knowing these men are taking strong steps toward turning their lives around.”
At the press conference, Katz distributed signs—advertising them as supporters of the program—to each merchant who had contributed to the Doe Fund. “When someone puts money into the Doe Fund, they are saying the neighborhood is worth it.”
The councilwoman said the Doe Fund would operate five days a week, from Thursday through Monday. If additional funds are raised, the program could increase to seven days a week.
State Senator Toby Stavisky added that the Doe Fund had helped transform the image of Downtown Flushing in just a few months of operation. “I’m delighted how good the Doe Fund has been. It’s like a new renaissance,” she said.
Doe Fund founder George McDonald developed the idea for Ready, Willing and Able more than 15 years ago, when the city’s homeless crisis was starting to peak. The program’s premise is that a formerly homeless person can create a viable existence if they are able to obtain a minimum wage, low skill job, rent an affordable room and stay off drugs.
“Everyone appreciates when someone takes responsibility for their lives and does something to change their circumstances,” McDonald said.
One of the Doe Fund’s success stories is Donnelle Johnson, 42, of Harlem. Johnson, who began his first tour of Forest Hills last week, grew up in Chicago, but lost his job and his home to alcoholism.
Four months into Ready, Willing and Able—and sober for 13 months—he is grateful to have the opportunity to make an honest living and turn his life around.
“All I wanted was a purpose for living,” Johnson said. “And, now I have it. Today, I have something to live for.”